“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1995) Review

Below is my review of the 1995 version of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility”

 

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1995) Review

The year 1995 saw the beginning of an onslaught of Britain and the United States’ love affair with British author, Jane Austen. A love affair that has not abated after fourteen (14) years. In 1995, the BBC aired Andrew Davies’ miniseries adaptation of Austen’s most famous novel, ”Pride and Prejudice”. And later that year, Hollywood released its adaptation of another Austen, ”Sense and Sensibility” – which I had just recently watched.

Directed by Ang Lee, ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”, starred Emma Thompson (who also wrote the screenplay), Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant. The story centered around Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Winslet), two daughters of Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) by his second wife (Gemma Jones). They have a younger sister, Margaret (Emilie François), and an older half-brother named John (James Fleet). When their father dies, the family estate passes to John, and the Dashwood women are left in reduced circumstances. The story follows the Dashwood sisters to their new home, a cottage on a distant relative’s property (Robert Hardy), where they experience both romance and heartbreak. The contrast between the quiet and sensible Elinor and the extroverted and occasionally impetuous Marianne is eventually resolved as each sister finds love and lasting happiness. This leads some to believe that the story’s title described how Elinor and Marianne find a balance between sense and sensibility in life and love.

Producer Lindsay Doran made an excellent choice in selecting Lee to direct the film. First of all, he drew some excellent performances from his cast – especially from Thompson, Winslet, and Rickman. Lee also effectively drew filmgoers back into Regency England without allowing the film to resemble some kind of stiff painting or a museum piece. Although he initially had trouble with dealing with Western-style of filmmaking – especially in dealing with British cast members who questioned his direction and made suggestions regarding shots. He could be rather authoritarian with the cast, especially with Hugh Grant. The actor ended up calling him ”the Brute” behind his back. But he and the cast eventually got used to each other. Lee was also responsible for insisting that Thompson play the oldest Dashwood sister. And he Lee ordered Winslet to read poetry and novels from the late 18th century and early 19th century in order to get her to connect to Marianne’s romantic nature. And to give the movie its emotional core, he asked both Thompson and Winslet to room together during production. The two actresses remain close friends to this day.

Not only was Lee ably assisted by his superb cast, but also by crew members such as costume designers Jenny Beavan and John Bright, production designer Luciana Arrighi, set decorator Ian Whittaker, art directors Philip Elton and Andrew Sanders; and cinematographer Michael Coulter, whose photography beautifully captured the English countryside in all of its glory. I especially have to give kudos to Coulter’s photography and Arrighi’s production design for a beautiful re-creation of Regency London. I also enjoyed composer Patrick Doyle’s score for the film. His use of John Dowland’s song, “Weep You No More Sad Fountains” as Marianne’s own theme song struck me as very impressive. But I have to especially give kudos to Emma Thompson for her marvelous adaptation of Austen’s novel. It may not have adhered exactly to the novel, but I found it well written, lively and paced just right.

With the exception of two performances, I felt more than impressed with the cast. When Ang Lee had signed on as the movie’s director, he immediately suggested that Emma Thompson portray the oldest Dashwood sister, Elinor. Thompson considered herself too old for the role, considering that Elinor was at least 19-20 years old in the novel. But Lee suggested that she increase Elinor’s age to 27 in the screenplay, which would also make her distress at being a spinster easier for contemporary audiences to understand. Frankly, I feel that Lee made a good choice. Emma Thompson gave a superb performance as Elinor Dashwood, whose practical mind led her to act as the family’s de facto leader, following her father’s death. She also brilliantly conveyed Elinor’s emotional nature behind a mask of reticence via her eyes and various expressions. Kate Winslet had no need to be subtle as the more openly emotional Marianne Dashwood. Winslet was at least 20 years old when she filmed ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY’. Yet, even at that tender age, Winslet proved that she had the talent and acting chops to portray the very complex Marianne. I found it ironic that although her character was not what I would describe as subtle. And yet, Winslet managed to convey all aspects of Marianne’s personality – romantic, willful, emotional and sometimes a bit self-involved.

I found Alan Rickman impressive as one of the Dashwoods’ new neighbors, the quiet and dependable Colonel Christopher Brandon. I enjoyed the subtle manner in which Rickman expressed Brandon’s reluctance in expressing his love for Marianne, due to her feelings for another man. That other man proved to Greg Wise, who gave a surprisingly effective performance as the dashing, yet rakish Edward Willoughby. Wise has never struck me as an exceptional actor, but I must admit that I consider Willoughby to be one of his two best performances. The movie’s supporting cast also included Robert Hardy and the late Elizabeth Spriggs, who gave amusing performances as Sir John Middleton, the Dashwoods’ cousin and benefactor; and Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law. Gemma Jones was excellent as the emotional and sometimes girlish mother of the Dashwood sisters. I was also impressed by Harriet Walter, who portrayed the sisters’ shrewish sister-in-law, Fanny Dashwood. And Hugh Laurie gave a hilarious performance as the sardonic and long-suffering Mr. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’ other son-in-law. And I must say that Imogen Stubbs also impressed me by her subtle performance as the cunning and manipulative Lucy Steele, who seemed to have a claim for the same man that Elinor Dashwood longs for.

Speaking of Elinor Dashwood’s love, I finally come to the two performances that had failed to impress me. One of them belonged to Hugh Grant. He portrayed Edward Ferrars, one of Fanny Dashwood’s brothers that happened to be in love with Elinor and is claimed by the manipulative Lucy Steele as her fiancé. Remember his charming, yet modest performance in the hit 1994 comedy, ”FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL”? Well, his Edward Ferrars turned out to be an early 19th century version of his ”FOUR WEDDINGS” role. Grant simply gave the same performance, but with more stuttering and less charm. What had been fresh and original in 1994, ended up as old news a year later in ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Fortunately, he managed to create some kind of chemistry with both Thompson and Emilie François, who portrayed the young Margaret Dashwood. Another performance that did nothing for me belonged to Imelda Staunton. She portrayed Charlotte Jennings Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’ daughter and Mr. Palmer’s wife. I realize that she was supposed to be an annoying character, but one could say the same about Sir John and Mrs. Middleton. But whereas I found Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs’ performances amusing, Staunton’s slightly over-the-top portrayal of Charlotte Palmer ended up irritating the hell out of me.

I understand that Andrew Davies had produced his own version of the Austen novel, last year. Since I have yet to see it, I cannot compare it to the 1995 version, directed by Ang Lee. I do know that I am more than impressed with this particular version. It came as no surprise to me that it earned seven (7) Academy Award nominations and won one (1) for Thompson’s Adapted Screenplay. ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” is one movie I could watch over again without ever getting tired of it.

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“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

Four years ago, the BBC aired a five-part miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s series of stories about a small town in North West England. After viewing the 2004 miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, my curiosity regarding the 2007 miniseries became piqued and I turned my attention toward it. 

Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, and adapted by Heidi Thomas;”CRANFORD” is based upon three of Gaskell’s novellas published between 1849 and 1858 – ”Cranford””My Lady Ludlow”, and”Mr Harrison’s Confessions”. Birtwistle, Conklin and Thomas took aspects of Gaskell’s stories, re-shuffled them and added some of their own plotlines to create the five-episode miniseries. ”CRANFORD” mainly focused upon the small English village between 1842-1843, during the early years of the Victorian Age. On the surface, Cranford seemed like an idyllic community in which time remained stuck in the late Georgian Age. However, progress – both technological and social – began its intrusion upon the community for better or worse. The arrival of a young doctor named Frank Harrison with modern new ideas about medical practices, and a railway construction crew on the town’s outskirts that meant the arrival of the railway, change and possibly unwelcomed citizens; seemed to be the prime symbols of the encroaching Industrial Age.

Many humorous and tragic incidents shown as minor plotlines are scattered throughout ”CRANFORD”. But the main stories seemed to focus upon the following characters:

*Miss Matilda “Matty” Jenkyns – the younger of two elderly sisters who had to endure a series of travails that included the death of a loved one, the reunion with an old love and the loss of her income.

*Dr. Frank Harrison – Cranford’s new young doctor who has to struggle to win the trust of Cranford’s citizens and the love of the vicar’s oldest daughter, Sophy Hutton.

*Lady Ludlow – the Lady of Hanbury Court who struggles to maintain funds for her spendthrift son and heir living in Italy.

*Mr. Edmund Carter – Lady Ludlow’s land agent, who views Lady Ludlow’s attempts to raise funds for her dissolute son with a leery eye and clashes with his employer over the fate of the young son of a poacher.

*Harry Gregson – the very son of the poacher, whom Mr. Carter views as promising and whom Lady Ludlow views as someone who should remain in his station.

*Octavia Pole – a spinster and Cranford’s town gossip who proves to be the subject of a series of hilarious events.

I realize that ”CRANFORD” is a highly acclaimed program. And I also understand why it became so popular. The production team for “CRANFORD” did an excellent job in conveying television viewers back in time to the early Victorian Age. The miniseries possessed some very whimsical moments that I found particularly funny. These moments included Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ assistance in helping Miss Jessie Brown and Major Gordon stay in beat during their rendition of ”Loch Lomond” with a spoon and a teacup; Miss Pole’s hysteria over a thief in Cranford; Caroline Tomkinson’ infatuation with Dr. Harrison; and especially the incident regarding the cat that swallowed Mrs. Forrester’s valuable lace.

Yet, ”CRANFORD” had its poignant moments. Dr. Harrison’s futile efforts to save young Walter Hutton from the croup, along with Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ death allowed Episode 2 to end on a sober note. And the doctor’s more successful efforts to save Sophy Hutton from typhoid gave the last episode a great deal of drama and angst. I found it almost difficult to watch Miss Matty endure one crisis after another – until she finally prevailed with the establishment of her own tea shop, with the help of the ladies of Cranford and her reunion with her long lost brother. My heartstrings also tugged when the conflict between Mr. Carter and Lady Ludlow over Harry Gregson ended on a tragic, yet poignant note. But the one scene that left me in tears turned out to be the series’ final shot of Cranford’s citizens bidding good-bye to the recently married Dr. Harrison and Sophy. The miniseries closed on what seemed to be a real sense of community.

And that is what the theme of ”CRANFORD” seemed to be about – at least to me. Community. However, this theme and the Gaskell novellas that the miniseries were based upon have led me to a conclusion. There seemed to be a lack of balance or blending between the series’ format and the material. If ”CRANFORD” had been based upon one novel or a series of novels that served as a continuing saga, I would never have any problems with its tight structure of a five-episode miniseries. But”CRANFORD” was based upon three novellas written over a period of time that were certainly not part of a continuing saga. And if I must be frank, I personally feel that the miniseries could have served its source of material a lot better as a one or two-season television series.

I realize that producing a television series that was also a period drama would have been more expensive than a miniseries or a series set in the present. But Heidi Thomas’ script seemed vague for the miniseries format. With the exception one particular storyline, ”CRANFORD” seemed to be filled with minor stories that were usually resolved within one to three episodes. For example, the Valentine card storyline that left Dr. Harrison in trouble with the ladies of Cranford stretched across three episodes. Even the railway construction storyline only appeared in three episodes and not in any particular order. Miss Matty’s financial situation only stretched into two episodes. And plots featuring the lace-swallowing cat, Miss Matty’s relationship with Mr. Thomas Holbrook, and Jem Hearne’s broken arm only appeared in one episode. The only storyline that consistently appeared in all five episodes turned out to be the conflict between Lady Ludlow and Mr. Carter over Harry Gregson’s future.

But one cannot deny that ”CRANFORD” was blessed with a first-rate cast. The cream of this cast consisted of a sterling group of veteran British actresses, whose characters dominated the series. However, only a handful of performances really caught my attention. Two of them belonged to Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins as the Jenkyns sisters – the mild-mannered Matty and the domineering Deborah. Judging from their outstanding performances, I can easily understand how one of them earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress and the other won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for Outstanding Lead Actress. Another outstanding performance from a veteran actress came from Francesca Annis, who portrayed the intensely conservative Lady Ludlow. Annis did a wonderful job in conveying her character’s rigid opposition to education for the lower classes and struggle to overcome these feelings in the face of her kindness and compassion. Philip Glenister, who made a name for himself in the 1995 miniseries ”VANITY FAIR” and in the award winning series ”LIFE ON MARS” and its sequel, ”ASHES TO ASHES”; certainly proved his talents as an actor and strong screen presence in his portrayal of the intense, yet very practical Mr. Edmund Carter. I especially enjoyed Glenister’s scenes with Annis, while their characters clashed over the fate of young Harry Gregson. Providing the bulk of comic relief were actresses Imelda Staunton (from 1995’s ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and ”HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”) and Julia McKenzie (the new Miss Jane Marple for ITV). They portrayed two of Cranford’s biggest gossips, Miss Octavia Pole and Mrs. Forrester. Staunton seemed truly hilarious, while portraying Miss Pole’s terror and anxiety over becoming the victim of a thief. And not only was McKenzie funny as the finicky Mrs. Forrester, she gave a poignant soliloquy in which her character recalled a past act of kindness from Miss Matty.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed ”CRANFORD”. Thanks to directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, along with production designer Donal Woods, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and costume designer Jenny Beavan; the miniseries gave television audiences a warm, humorous and poignant look into village life in early Victorian England. But despite the production team and the cast, I believe the miniseries has a major flaw. Its source material – three novellas written by Elizabeth Gaskell – did not mesh very well with the miniseries format. I believe that ”CRANFORD” would have been better off as a television series. Such a format could have served its stories a lot better.