Sense and Sensibility is among the many film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels throughout the decades. While some would deem redundant, each retelling contributes something unique to the Austen universe – Colin Firth in a wet, white t-shirt, anyone? – the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility offers a brilliant star-studded cast that has the right chemistry to pull off this Austen classic.
Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet make the perfect pair of Dashwood sisters, portraying ‘sense’ (stoic Thompson as Elinor) and ‘sensibility’ (emotive Winslet as Marianne). As the older, and obviously-already-a-spinster sibling, Elinor manifests a cool demeanour, despite her father having just died and his fortune passing to his son Henry from a previous marriage. This means that Elinor, Marianne, their youngest sister, and mother are left destitute and searching for a new home, while Henry and his snob of a wife, Fanny, move into and effectively take over their estate. Marianne, on the other hand, is quick to wear her heart on her sleeve, clearly ignoring Fanny and making her disgust of the whole situation well known.
This unfortunate circumstance might prove valuable when Fanny’s handsome brother arrives for a visit. As with any Austen novel, our protagonists’ love-interests are vital to the narrative, and Hugh Grant’s acting style works perfectly with Edward Ferrars’ charming-gentleman demeanour , though it’s hard to tell if he’s hiding something. He and Elinor quickly establish an attachment, much to Fanny’s disapproval.
Now in their new ‘cottage’, it’s Marianne’s turn for suitors to woo her. Col. Brandon, portrayed by Alan Rickman, is the unlikely hero in Marianne’s story, as Harry Potter fans know him to be. An older gentleman who falls in love at first sight with the whimsical Marianne really doesn’t “inspire” love from her, at least at first. Instead, she almost literally gets swept off her feet by John Willoughby, played by Greg Wise, after twisting her ankle. The two begin an overtly passionate relationship (at least for the time period), much to the chagrin of Col. Brandon who knows Willoughby as a scoundrel for leaving a girl pregnant with no intention of marrying her. On the day the Dashwoods assume Willoughby will propose… he announces that he must head for London at once, leaving Marianne completely heartbroken. With many unsuspecting twists and engrossing drama, this is perhaps Austen’s best story to bring to the screen.
While the romance subplots may be considered the main premise of Sense and Sensibility, it’s really about Elinor and Marianne’s relationship. Always at odds with each other and what real love should look like, both sisters learn that it’s necessary to balance both ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’: Elinor shows signs of emotion when Mr. Ferrars finally confesses his love to her, and Marianne learns that subtle signs of affection can be a great deal more meaningful than superficial, grandiose gestures. It is satisfying to see these changes as Thompson and Winslet do such an amazing job in subtly changing their characters’ behaviours: Elinor loosens her self-restraint when communicating with those around her, rather than maintaining a rigid, outward attitude, and Marianne becomes less melodramatic with her interactions.
Much like Austen’s book, the film brings to life the harsh realities for women in regency England through exclusion from inheritance and careers and the dependency on finding a suitable husband. This is particularly apparent when Elinor makes the comment to Mr. Ferrars, “You talk of feeling idle and useless. Imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever […] You will inherit your fortune. We cannot even earn ours”. The abrupt change in the Dashwood’s circumstances is immediately evident through the downgrade in their living conditions and wardrobe. The film shows Elinor speaking to the family’s large group of servants prior to moving into their quaint cottage, and the fabrics that she and other members of the family becomes duller overall.
The complexities of not just the main characters, but also the supporting characters, is seamlessly exhibited through their dialogue and body language, holding the viewer’s complete attention for the duration of the film; otherwise, even looking away for a few seconds means missing key detail. Hugh Laurie, while only in a handful of scenes, perfectly exemplifies this with his portrayal of Mr. Palmer (it might have something to do with him being married to Professor Umbridge, though). The camera often pans to him for a second as he gives sarcastic and scathing looks or comically mutters hilarious lines under his breath, but the viewer later learns he just has a gruff demeanour and a caring soul. It is easy to connect with the protagonists and enjoy the pitfalls of the antagonists due to the brilliant portrayals each actor brings to their respective role. The cast is really what shines through in this adaptation and is further highlighted with appropriate classical music and beautiful cinematography that shows off England’s lushness. Each time I re-watch this movie, I know it will be a completely immersing experience.
It’s no wonder this film is considered a classic. The cast brilliantly brings Austen’s work to life, with each actor’s own charms enhancing their respective character’s, making this Sense and Sensibility adaptation one of my favourite Austen films.