"He loves her but she loves him
And he loves somebody else, you just can't win."
-- J. Geils Band, "Love Stinks"
The leap from Jane Austen novel to J. Geils Band song is not as great as you might think. In Austen's Sense and Sensibility, dignified Colonel Brandon yearns for impetuous Marianne ("He loves her"). But Marianne falls -- literally and figuratively -- for the bolder, handsomer Willoughby ("but she loves him"). Despite Willoughby's obvious reciprocation of Marianne's affections, one day he inexplicably ups and leaves her ("he loves somebody else"). You just can't win.
Emma Thompson, not content with her acclaim as one of the finest English-speaking actresses on the face of the planet, makes a smashing debut as a screenwriter with this droll, spirited adaption of Austen's genteel nineteenth-century British comedy of manners (not to mention manors). Together with director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman), Thompson accentuates the ironic humor in Austen's pointed social satire. The result is not unlike a lighter, funnier Merchant-Ivory production.
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And it doesn't hurt the film any that Thompson puts on her thespian's hat as well. She anchors this tale of two sisters as Elinor, Marianne's more rational sibling. Elinor is as pragmatic (ruled by sense) as Marianne is passionate (ruled by her sensibilities). They live with their mother and younger sister Margaret in the sprawling mansion of their wealthy father, Henry Dashwood. Unfortunately for the Dashwood women, their mother is Henry's second wife. When Henry takes ill and dies, English law dictates that his estate must pass to John, his spineless son by his first marriage. John's nagging, social-climbing wife Fanny has always resented her husband's attractive, intelligent half-sisters, and she manipulates John into reneging on his promise to his father -- as the old man lies on his deathbed -- to share the wealth with Henry's second wife and her daughters.
The Dashwood sisters find themselves at the mercy of their relatives. They reach turning points in their romantic lives while struggling to cope with their sudden plunge in social status. Things go more smoothly in the financial arena (Henry's cousin puts up the girls in a picturesque cottage on his estate) than they do in the romantic one. Pangs of heartbreak and rejection force the pragmatist to confront her passionate side, while the passionate sister learns to be more pragmatic.
As always, Thompson is exemplary as the seemingly unflappable Elinor, whose problematic romance with Fanny's bashful brother Edward (Hugh Grant, looking even more repressed and uncomfortable than usual) progresses at a snail's pace. Kate Winslet (so great as Juliet Hulme in last year's Heavenly Creatures) brings plenty of fire to the role of Marianne. (It's the kind of part that usually goes to Helena Bonham Carter.) And the Taiwanese Lee, who on paper seems like an odd choice to direct -- he's never read a word of Jane Austen and speaks only halting English -- brilliantly and vividly brings the aristocratic milieu to life without ever letting things get stuffy or heavy-handed. In short, Lee and Thompson have crafted an adaption of Austen that feels at once contemporary and timeless.