UK / 1995
Writer: Emma Thompson, based on the novel by Jane Austen / Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Greg Wise, James Fleet, Harriet Walter
Jane Austen mania was in full swing when Ang Lee’s film reached cinema screens in 1996. Film adaptations of Emma and Persuasion and the phenomenonal success of TV series Pride and Prejudice had already paved the way for Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Austen’s first novel (written in 1795 and published in 1811). It was no surprise that it went on to become the most popular British film of the year (just pipping Trainspotting, which was released on the same day in the UK).
Thompson studied Jane Austen as part of her degree at Cambridge and worked on the adaptation over a number of years. Indeed, the film was in development for a long time: at the beginning of the ’90s, five major studios all turned down Sense and Sensibility (one executive claiming to have heard of neither Emma Thompson or Jane Austen). By 1996, though, the film was receiving seven Oscar nominations, with Thompson winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
When Ang Lee first received Thompson’s script, he assumed there’d been some mistake. After all, the Taiwanese director of The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman had never made a film in English before, let alone a period drama, but after reading the script he found himself able to identify with Austen’s world. “Underneath the strange customs and costumes,” he explains, “I began to feel a strong and immediate spiritual kinship with my own tradition: in both societies, there is a similar concern for harmony, and achieving a careful balance of opposites.”
Set in the late 18th century, the film focuses on the Dashwood sisters, Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Oscar-nominated Kate Winslet), who lose their inheritance and the family home in Sussex following the death of their father. Displaced by their half-brother John (James Fleet) and his socially ambitious wife Fanny (Harriet Walter), the sisters are forced to move to Devon, to stay on their mother’s cousin’s estate. Trying to cope with their sudden social relegation, the sisters also soon discover that, in quintessential Austen fashion, the course of true love is as smooth as a crocodile’s back. So, despite the attentions of Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), Marianne falls for the dashing Willoughby (Greg Wise), while the long-suffering Elinor is in love with Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrers (Hugh Grant). And after the revelation of a series of skeletons lurking in the closets of all the men, things become even more complicated before reaching a satisfactory conclusion for both sisters.
Sense and Sensibility is “everything a big movie romance should be: funny, heartwarming, pretty to look at and stylishly executed,” wrote the Daily Telegraph. The Daily Mail, meanwhile, compared it to another Hugh Grant film, calling it “the paciest, wittiest, most entertaining romantic comedy since Four Weddings and a Funeral – faithful in spirit to Jane Austen’s novel but not at all literary, cobwebby or outmoded. It’s a sublimely funny film, which moved me to tears three times.”