Friday, February 6, 2009

Flick of the Week: Sense and Sensibility

This week we move from 18th century China to early 19th century England by way of director Ang Lee: from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the wonderful adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

The film was Lee's first English film, and he got the job on the back of his work directing Eat Drink Man Woman. It was an inspired choice by whoever chose him, because he is one of the best directors of love stories going around (he also did Brokeback Mountain).

The novel was adapted by Emma Thompson (she won the Oscar for it) and as her next screenplay was the very good kid's film Nanny Mcphee a whole 10 years later, I can only say I think she should write more often.

The adaptation is excellent - fast paced, and while it must (as all films must) cuts out parts of the book that would have survived had it been a mini-series (and which indeed were kept in the excellent BBC version), it still retains the spark and brilliance of Austen's early work.

It was Austen's second published novel, and while I rank it below Persuasion, Emma and Pride and Prejudice it is a great read that survives multiple re-reading, as this film does re-viewings.

The story of the two Dashwood sisters Elinor (Emma Thomson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet) who approach love in very different ways is almost Shakespearean in its comedy plot intrigues - secrets, mistaken impressions, intertwined characters, resolution, fall, triumph. It's all there, and in this film it's all a delight to behold.

The biggest failing is that Emma Thompson plays Elinor, despite the fact that Thompson was 35 at the time and Elinor is supposed to be 19. But fortunately Emma Thomson is so damn good, you don't really care. In some ways having Thompson as so "old" works for the modern viewer, as it is somewhat hard to believe that a 19 year old might be destined for the shelf should she not quickly marry.

The other casting is brilliant - Winslet in her first big role (she had been in Heavenly Creatures before this) gives a performance that suggested she could be a great actress (which indeed she is). Alan Rickman is perfect as Colonel Brandon, and Greg Wise is suitably raffish and caddish as the bounder Willoughby.

Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars is not quite as described in the novel: "He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing". In fact he plays the role almost like a 19th century version of his stuttering Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

But no matter, the film is wonderful to watch - it certainly feels English (a concern for many when Lee was first announced as the director), and regardless of casting, the acting is top notch by all.

I love Austen's writing ; for me she is the first genius novelist, and she is rarely surpassed. Her numerous adaptations have helped keep her popularity high. I think one of the reasons is that Austen's stories and characters as so well constructed that it's almost impossible to stuff up.

Thompson certainly did not stuff up with her script, and her and Winslet in particular make the most of their characters. The two work off each other superbly, and their work here reminds you that great drama and emotion does not mean we have to have stories about people whose lives have been trodden on by humanity.

Austen may at times be quaint - I always like the scene of the girls out "working in the fields" pulling reeds, and perhaps it's hard to care too much about people who are still wealthy enough to have servants (and let's be honest the 'cottage' they rent looks idyllic) - but just because her playing field was not the sewers or slums of England, does not mean her work is lacking drama (nor vicious humour).

The following scene is my favourite from the film. It involves the moment when it comes out that Edward Ferrars is secretly engaged to Lucy Steele. Marianne, who was sure Edward was to marry Elinor confronts Elinor on how long she has known about the engagement.

The two women give a master class of acting - both were nominated to Oscars - Thompson lost ot Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, and Winslet to Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (yep, you read that right):

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