1995

Film #386: Sense and Sensibility (1995)

In the last post we looked at two of Emma Thompson’s performances from Best Picture nominees of the early 1990s but unbeknownst to us she was also busy scribbling off screen. That’s because, for the best part of five years, Thompson had been adapting Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility after being hired for the project by producer Lindsay Doran. Thompson had initially wanted Natasha and Joely Richardson to play sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood but instead the studio wanted her to play Elinor. This meant having to alter the character’s age from nineteen to twenty-seven in order to make Thompson’s appearance in the part convincing. Thompson would go on to win her second Academy Award for the screenplay and be nominated for a third Best Actress for her role as Elinor. But it’s the actress who played Marianne that we turn our attention to as she features in the next couple of films.

The actress in question is Kate Winslet who was just nineteen when she appeared in Sense and Sensibility and earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination as a result. Winslet’s road to the part was a rocky one as she was initially due to audition for the smaller role of Lucy Steele. But when she arrived at the audition she played dumb and read for Marianne, instantly captivating the panel and winning the part. However, her casting in the film was not without criticism primarily from director Ang Lee who felt that her performance in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures was too over-the-top. In order for her to be convincing in the role, Lee wanted her to act more gracefully so encouraged her to read poetry and learn to play the piano. The result was a scene-stealing performance as the reckless middle Dashwood sister who falls head-over-heels for the dashing John Willoughby. Even in the earlier scenes Winslet excels at conveying quiet disdain for her step-brother’s wife Fanny who is basically evicting them from their own home. Winslet easily conveys Marianne’s transformation from brash stroppy teenager to a more mature character as she finally falls for the stable Colonel Brandon. Emma Thompson’s own performance really tied everything together and I didn’t for a minute have a problem with the way that Elinor was substantially aged to suit Thompson. Indeed the fact that Elinor was practically considered a spinster was incorporated into Thompson’s script and worked perfectly well in the overall story. As the dreadful Fanny, Harriet Walter gave an incredibly awful turn and triumphed in providing the majority of the film’s comedy. Meanwhile Gemma Jones and Emilie François, as Mrs Dashwood and Margaret respectively, shone in their limited screen time. In comparison to their female counterparts, the male actors were a little subdued but that might have something to do with the characters they were playing. Apparently Thompson wrote the role of Edward Ferrars with Hugh Grant in mind but I feel the pair didn’t share enough chemistry to convince me of their on screen romance. Similarly, as Col Brandon, Alan Rickman’s chemistry with Winslet lacked any spark though he was convincing as an emotionally reserved soldier. Of the male leads, only Greg Wise put in a convincing turn as the dashing Willoughby as he made you understand why Marianne fell for him so much. Interestingly it was actually Thompson who fell for Wise in real life with the pair eventually marrying some years later.

Both Doran and Thompson wanted Sense and Sensibility to have far-reaching appeal and never wanted it to be viewed as just another costume drama. I definitely felt that Sense and Sensibility was more accessible than both Howard’s End and The Remains of the Day which at times were a little bit too rigid for their own good. One of the ways the pair achieved their goal was for Thompson to simplify some of the dialogue so the themes would be more relatable for a modern-day audience. Doran’s goal was for the film to appeal to lovers of romantic comedy and I feel that Thompson’s script for Sense and Sensibility does indeed have those sorts of elements. Another way Doran gained global appeal for the film was in the hiring of South Korean director Ang Lee, who had never heard of Jane Austen prior to his appointment. But, after reading Thompson’s script, he realised his previous film The Wedding Banquet had a lot in common with Austen’s story. Lee certainly added a lot of elegance to the piece but was able to incorporate some of his own stylistic qualities to the exterior scenes which made Sense and Sensibility feel a lot more open than the stuffier Merchant Ivory pictures. Costume designers, and Merchant Ivory stalwarts, John Bright and Jenny Bevan provided plenty of distinctive outfits for each individual character. Meanwhile composer Patrick Doyle’s score provided a suitable accompaniment to a film that felt a lot more contemporary than a lot of other Victorian dramas. Sense and Sensibility was a film I remember watching on VHS both at home and in a Year 9 English Lesson but a the time I don’t think I appreciated the quality of the film in the way I do now. Sense and Sensibility ultimately came across as a labour of love for all those involved and was a film that definitely deserved the seven Oscars it was nominated for. Meanwhile Winslet’s role in the film saw her become a breakout star and for the first time was a recognisable presence in the film industry.

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