Of all of Jane Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility interested me the most, and I remember wondering what Emma Thompson would make of it. Given the recent movie version of Jane Austen’s Emma, I became even more curious to take another look at the 1995 movie version of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompso, who had also written the screenplay.
I don’t often notice a screenplay. I’ll get preoccupied by the acting and by the overall look and sound of a movie, and I’ll forget to notice the script. But this one I did, because (thank God) it used a lot of Austen’s witty language, for instance, this interchange demonstrating Elinor’s) sense versus Marianne’s sensibility:
“I do not attempt to deny,” said [Elinor], “that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem—that I like him.”
[Elinor’s younger sister] Marianne here burst forth with indignation:
“Esteem him! Like him! … Use those words again, and I will leave the room this moment.”
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Except that “those words” become “those insipid words,” the dialogue in the movie is the same, and it is important dialogue in that it succinctly and humorously captures a crucial difference between the two sisters. Later in the book, the matronly Mrs. Jennings tries to alleviate Marianne’s heartbreak with “a variety of sweetmeats and olives,” (Austen, 204), a kind but ineffective effort.
In the movie, this “do I laugh or cry?” moment is captured by a brief dialogue between Mrs. Jennings and Elinor:
Mrs. Jennings: Does she care for olives?
Elinor (with evident self-restraint): I cannot tell you.
Although Austen does not use those lines, she surely might have. It did not surprise me to learn that Emma Thompson’s screenplay for Sense and Sensibility won an Oscar.
This Sense and Sensibility also has an excellent cast, led by Emma Thompson as Elinor and Kate Winslet as Marianne. Granted, those two were clearly typecast. How would the movie have fared, I wonder, if Kate Winslet had played the sensible Elinor and Emma Thompson had played the romantic (even Romantic) Marianne? There is a lot of typecasting going on in this movie, and yet, it works. Harriet Walter is wonderfully odious as the sisters’ selfish, cold-hearted sister-in-law, Fanny; she’s like a snake in muslin. Elisabeth Spriggs as the relentlessly match-making Mrs. Jennings looks like the Wife of Bath incarnate. Hugh Grant does his appealing awkwardness routine as anti-Casanova Edward Ferrars. And the beat more or less goes on.
The costumes and scenery of this Sense and Sensibility capture the look of Jane Austen’s Regency-era England. Women’s dresses of the Regency era are especially distinctive, and they’re represented all over this movie. Elinor and Marianne move about in high-waisted, loosely flowing dresses, as does Mrs. Jennings, as does disingenuous Lucy Steele and flighty Charlotte Palmer. While Fanny wears dark colors, not typical of Regency-era dresses, and she isn’t as loosely flowing as the other women, she does have the high-waisted look. Meantime, the South of England countryside—and there are many shots of the countryside—has the look of the unspoiled beauty of Nature before industrialization got into full swing. Nor is Nature merely a charming backdrop to the story, given that the Romantic Marianne tends to wander around in it, with major consequences.
But, while Emma Thompson’s performance drew me back to this movie, the pleasant surprise was to see Harriet Walter as the mean-spirited Fanny, who, although a minor character, isn’t unimportant. After all, it is Fanny’s meanness—skillfully depicted in a series of opening scenes in the movie—that sets the plot in motion. Of paramount importance to the plot is the theme of sense versus sensibility, which this movie puts front and center.
Note: I used a Penguin English Library edition of Sense and Sensibility, which begins on page 39.
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.