Why you should wallow in the romance and wit of ‘Sense and Sensibility'
" ... Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken ... "
— Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
Just look at Alan Rickman. Really, just look at him, as his noble Colonel Brandon first lays eyes on Kate Winslet's Marianne Dashwood in the 1995 movie of Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." Entering the estate of his friend Sir John Middleton, he hears singing and walks quietly to a doorway where he sees Marianne at a piano, framed in angelic sunlight. He looks stricken, as if hit by velvet lightning; his eyes narrow just a bit and he seems to be barely breathing. For Colonel Brandon, unexpectedly struck by love, the rest of the world has fallen away, just for a moment. The same thing happens to us as we watch.
There are so many reasons to celebrate "Sense and Sensibility," which observes its 25th birthday this year, and not the least of them is the chance to wallow in Rickman's soulful masterpiece of romantic yearning. (The great Rickman died of cancer in 2016; for many of us, he'll always be Colonel Brandon. No one, ever, could do more with a pause.) I've watched the movie many times, never with dry eyes (that last scene — you know the one I mean — does me in), and these days the poignant joy of it seems to hit even harder. Aren't we all, right now, desperate for a happy ending?
Long my favorite of filmdom's many Austen adaptations, this "Sense and Sensibility" is both exactly what you expect it to be and so very much more. Written in the late 1790s, Austen's novel — her first to be published, under the pseudonym "By a Lady" — is a tale of two sisters: sensible Elinor, who tucks away her feelings of love toward shy Edward Ferrars; passionate Marianne, who throws herself into romance with the dashing but undeserving John Willoughby, not noticing Colonel Brandon quietly pining for her. Emma Thompson's witty screenplay shows great reverence for Austen, but isn't afraid to make things her own, trimming out a few of the book's extraneous people and setpieces and adding rich character details (such as Edward's charming connection with the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret).
Director Ang Lee, in his first film fully in English (after "The Wedding Banquet" and "Eat Drink Man Woman"), lets the story unfold slowly and elegantly, allowing time for the elaborate bowing ritual every time a visitor enters a room, and for an enchanting cast of actors to leave their mark. In one of cinema's greatest examples of brilliant miscasting, Thompson plays Elinor — at 36, she was theoretically too old to play a character barely out of her teens — and gives her a gentle, innate wisdom. It's a performance both devastating (her burst of "What do you know of my heart?" to Marianne seems to rip the movie open) and sweetly wry; this Elinor is grown-up enough to know not to take herself too seriously.
A pre-"Titanic" (and still teenaged) Winslet, in just her second feature film, flung herself into her role in a very Marianne Dashwood way — all wide eyes, sighs and heartbreak. Hugh Grant, who'd just found floppy-haired celebrity after "Four Weddings and a Funeral," has never been more endearing on screen than as awkward, stammering Edward. Rickman is, of course, perfection incarnate. If I had to pick a favorite from the supporting cast, it would be Harriet Walter, whose slyly smiling and ever-scheming sister-in-law Fanny speaks every syllable as if she's tied elaborate knots in it. (Whenever I see a cottage, I think of her delivery of "A little cottage is always very snug.")
This "Sense and Sensibility" is full of nuance, about manners, class (in this society, everyone knows exactly how much money every household has), family (is any moment in the movie more heartbreaking than Elinor whispering, to a desperately ill Marianne, that "I cannot do without you"?), fashion, and friendship. It's romantic fantasy — Willoughby arrives, as all dashing gentlemen should, quite literally on a white horse — but with depth to its prettiness; the hems of the women's dresses are muddy, and the Dashwood home is spare and chilly. It's a celebration of language, from the spin that can be put on the single word "Tea!," to the way that "My dear" can be used as the iciest of weapons, to the verse of Shakespeare, whose 116th sonnet appears in the film in two very different contexts.
But ultimately, it's the sweetest of love stories, times two. By the time someone (oh, you probably know who) says "My heart is, and always will be, yours," and someone else gazes back like sunshine bursting through rain, "Sense and Sensibility" has done its job: we're now, like the characters, absurdly happy. And oh, Alan Rickman. My love for Colonel Brandon — and for this movie — never alters. May it never alteration find.
'SENSE AND SENSIBILITY'
Directed by Ang Lee, 1995, 134 minutes, rated PG for mild thematic elements. Available on DVD from Sony Home Entertainment, or streaming on Starz, Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu.