My Favorite Movies #4: Sense & Sensibility

Today I reveal the true extent of my masculinity, how truly man I am and how secure I am in how man I am. Are you all ready to bask in my manly glory?

Jane Austen is my favorite author.

That’s right. Jane Austen is my favorite author. I have read “Pride & Prejudice” literally four times, and while I find it difficult to get into her other work, my leather bound collection of her six novels often seems to whisper my name in the wee hours of the morning. …it’s actually rather creepy…

Sense & Sensibility” is by far the greatest adaptation of any Jane Austen work I have ever seen. And all my female readers just shouted, “Blasphemy!” Deal with it, ladies. It’s true. “Emma” is funny. Firth as Darcy is great. But Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Austen’s first novel blows them all out of the water, and for a very large part precisely because Thompson INTENTIONALLY strays from the original work. For those who don’t know the story:

When their Father dies, leaving the family estate to their half brother, three Sisters and their Mother must move to a new town and deal with the pursuits, or lack thereof, of several Men.

“Sense & Sensibility”, published in 1811, was Austen’s first published work, and, quite frankly, it shows. There is a clumsiness about the narrative that is lessened considerably in “Pride & Prejudice” (her second) and even more so in her later novels, what little I’ve read of them. When producer Lindsay Doran asked Thompson to write the adaptation (for which she won an Oscar), she was surprised. It is by far the least cinematic of all of Austen’s work, but Doran wanted to make THIS movie. So Thompson spent several years writing this masterpiece that retains very little of the original Austen aside from the rough characters and basic story arc. The rest, the actual structure of the story, the plot, the full characters, all had to be created, and Thompson killed it. “In the best sense,” to quote the movie. Really, in a lot of ways, Thompson actually fixed a very problematic story.

Emma Thompson. Star, Writer, Genius

(I’m going to stop talking about the crafting of the film now, because there are several resources that give a fuller, better description than I ever could. On the DVD there are two commentaries: one by Emma Thompson and Lindsay Doran, talking primarily about the work taken to adapt the script, and a second by director Ang Lee and his producing partner James Schamus, talking more about the actual production. Both are great, but the Thompson/Doran commentary is sheer genius and one of the greatest commentaries I’ve ever heard. Also, the screenplay is actually available to buy and contains Emma Thompson’s production journal from the shooting of the film. Incorrect screenplay formatting aside, fantastic look behind the curtain for a great film.)

Now, WHY do I love this film? Oh, for so many reasons. The adaptation is practically a master class in HOW to adapt a book. The cinematography is ridiculously beautiful. And the acting, from every single performer, is beyond Oscar-worthy (proven by only Thompson and Kate Winslet getting nominations and neither of them winning). But more on the acting later. Really it is all rooted in the story itself.

Thompson calls this story a story about three sisters, but I want to push it further than that (and not in a direction contradictory to Thompson’s intent). Really, it is a story of how three sisters are impacted by the men in their lives and those men’s individual struggles to actually BE the men.

That’s right. This is a MAN MOVIE.

The primary three men in the movie all have opportunities to step up and be the men these ladies need, but each one of them fails, succeeds, fails again, succeeds again, or vice versa. Really, the ladies are only reacting to the actions of the men in their lives throughout the story. Not that they are completely passive, but that their lives are so impacted by these men, they can only react. Thompson and Doran were fully aware of this while making the film, though the manliness never seems to be pushed. So clear were they on the importance of the men, particularly these ladies’ father who dies in the first scene, that they dedicated the film to their own fathers, both of whom died when Thompson and Doran were very young.

Honestly, the intricacies of these male characters (really five of them) are so fantastic, I intend to write a series of blogs specifically about the men of “Sense & Sensibility”, so I’ll save most of my comments for that series. Now onto the acting.

This cast is practically a who’s who of British actors. Awesome. Thompson herself is brilliant in the lead, a very subtle performance, and perfect for the setting. Winslet, virtually unknown at this time, is the “sense”, or the heart, of the pair and plays the passion beautifully. But again, it’s the male performances that continue to get me.

First, Hugh Grant, also fairly unknown (at least during the shooting of the film) plays against type as the socially awkward and introverted Edward. My personal favorite performance of his due to his actually acting and not just being Hugh Grant.

The relatively unknown even now Greg Wise as the rakish Willoughby covers a range of emotions much like Winslet’s character who is instantly smitten with him. It’s a shame he doesn’t work more in pieces more well known on this side of the pond.

The real star though, in my opinion, is Alan Rickman, also playing against type. Here, he is not the villain of Die Hard or Harry Potter, or even the walking ego in human form of Galaxy Quest. Here he is truly a man. Like Grant’s performance, this is true acting from an amazing actor who is far too often cast simply because of a certain air about him. In “Sense & Sensibility”, Rickman plays a true badass so out of his depth in regards to love that the object of his affection barely even notices him. And still he is the most fully formed man in the story. I want to be him.

The cast is rounded out by the omnipresent Imelda Staunton, Imogen Stubbs (both in Twelfth Night, which I’ll talk about next week), Tom Wilkinson, and even a pre-House Hugh Laurie playing essentially a more likable British version of House. Hilarious.

Every aspect of this film is beautiful, as I’ve said, and I’ve never met a person who’s seen it who didn’t love it. It is subtle, quiet, understated, hilarious, painful, and joyous. Filmmakers should see it to learn how to adapt other work and how to shoot without close-ups, and the rest of the world should see it because…well…because it’s awesome.

What’s your perspective on how men are portrayed in today’s media? Do you think it’s accurate, or do we need to see a change? What about the portrayal of women in today’s media? Do you think Austen had a better or worse grasp on what really makes a woman tick than today’s writers?

5 responses to “My Favorite Movies #4: Sense & Sensibility

  1. Here’s another one I saw years ago and need to see again. Thanks for the reminder. I’d like to see more real men portrayed…the kind of men I know in real life. It seems like every man in media is a stereotype of one type or another…either the manly man or the opposite. I want to see men like my husband…he’s into “manly” things like sports, cars, grilling, etc., but he also has been the one to stay home with our girls, wants to be an elementary school teacher, etc.

  2. Men are too often portrayed as bumbling idiots, or children in adult bodies. The lack of honest male characters in today’s media has had a detrimental effect on our modern culture. You are very right when you point out the rich characters of Jane Austin. We need more quality writers today. Film is all about the writing!

  3. This movie definitely does a better job of portraying men than most others. They’re actually seen as real people, which is surprisingly rare. Alan Rickman is fantastic. He usually is, but here he’s fantastic in a role that you don’t usually get to see him in. I do wonder how the Austen purists feel about this movie, though, since it strays so much from the book.

  4. As I would not go as far as to label this as a “Man Movie”, I would say I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and laughed my butt off. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are elements in this story that are very important for men to see and understand. Especially the Honor and Nobility of Colonel Brandon one of the best men portrayed in a film. I believe the story is geared towards a female audience, but does so in a way as not to alienate the male viewer. I would rate this pretty high up there in my top films.

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