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Sense and Sensibility

Posted by martinteller on April 17, 2015

Here’s a fun game to play when watching any movie from the past 30 years with a largely British cast: count the Harry Potter actors.  In this one, we’ve got six.  Alan Rickman (Severus Snape), Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney), Imelda Staunton (Dolores Umbridge), Gemma Jones (Madam Pomfrey), Robert Hardy (Cornelius Fudge), and Elizabeth Spriggs (the Fat Lady in the painting).  Amazing how many people have passed through that series at one time or another.

Anyway, I knew absolutely nothing about Jane Austen’s story going into this.  But being a period picture representing a certain time in British history, there are certain expectations.  It’s going to be largely about the damages of emotional repression and the barriers of class.  People will suppress their desires for the sake of propriety (and at least once everyone will be quietly shocked when someone does something improper).  There will be a ball with an impossibly complicated dance.  Lots of absurdly fussy costumes.  Someone will get deathly ill.

S&S delivers on all these counts, and in some ways it’s frustrating… but mainly because the times themselves are so frustrating.  There are moments when they make it clear that Elinor and Marianne have nothing to look forward to in life except for someone to come along and marry them.  The brief lines of dialogue that lament this situation feel like they come from Emma Thompson’s screenplay — reminding the viewer that things were different back then — rather than Austen, but I am not sure.  It can be difficult for a modern viewer to readily accept that these women have virtually no choice but to pin all their hopes on a man and wait for him to propose.

But within these narrow confines (confines made more evident by Ang Lee’s more than capable direction, often framing the characters in tight boundaries, or withdrawing the camera to make the walls close in on them) there is an enjoyable, engaging tale.  In a very strong cast, Rickman and Thompson stand tall.  Thompson carries over plenty of that British repression from her marvelous turn in The Remains of the Day, and Rickman plays one of his most sympathetic roles.  Kate Winslet is always reliable, though her character gives her little room to shine.  I also enjoyed the comic relief of the Hugh Laurie/Imelda Staunton couple.  Hugh Grant’s signature stammering gets old fast, but I guess it suits the role.

There are ways in which this film seems to transcend the costume drama trappings.  Michael Coulter’s lush cinematography certainly helps (hardly surprising considering his previous credits include The Long Day Closes).  As do the fine performances.  Overall, the movie entertains and even moves, despite a certain feeling of familiarity… and a nagging desire to take the likable characters and transport them to a more sensible time.  Rating: Good (77)


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