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Archive for March, 2008

Watching the new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, I realize I have a love/hate relationship with screenwriter Andrew Davies. I love him because he wrote the scripts for several of my favorite Jane Austen film adaptations and his movies are exciting to watch. I dislike his work because he tinkers with Jane’s intent and plot. He cannot leave well enough alone, and yet his movies of Jane’s novels attract huge ratings. Take this latest film adaptation, for example. I’m amazed by how much I like it, despite Andrew’s heavy hand in making the heroes seem more real and inserting scenes that Jane never intended. In fact, Mr. Davies’ name seems to be displayed as prominently in the credits as Jane Austen’s. Food for thought.
So what did I like and what didn’t I like about the film that caused me to continue my love/hate relationship with Mr. Davies? I’ll vent first, and discuss …

… A Few Pesky, Bothersome Moments

1) A Very Un-Janelike Sex Scene Opens the Film
There had been such a ruckus over the movie’s sexy opening sequence, that when I finally saw it my only thought was, “Meh, is that all?” The scene starts the film off on a wrong note, however, which takes away from the dramatic tension later on. Barbara Larochelle, the Sense and Sensibility discussion moderator on The Republic of Pemberley , explains in Sensibility Crashing Against Sense how the opening sequence dilutes the impact of the viewers’ dawning awareness that Willoughby is a cad and nothing like a romantic hero.

After the turgid opening scene, we are treated to the true beginning of Sense and Sensibility: the death of Mr. Dashwood and John’s promise to take care of his stepmother and stepsisters.

2) Making Fun of a Chubby Child
The plot quickens when Fanny Dashwood, with husband and child in tow, hastens to Norland Park the Monday after the funeral to assume her duties as its mistress. Her strong hold over John, as Davies implies as she blows out the candle, are her talents in bed. Fanny, played with just the right amount of snaky oiliness by Claire Skinner, firmly puts the kabosh on her husband’s plans to support his step mother and half sisters. Young Henry, or Harry, is depicted as a chubby child. Morgan Overton, the young actor who portrays him is forced to wear a frightful wig (or hairstyle), spectacles, and skeleton suit with frilly collared shirt. He is seen chomping on food almost the entire time he is on screen, except in this image. This stereotypical portrayal of an overweight child was obvious and unnecessary. Sorry Andrew, fat is not funny. Ever. Besides, Jane would not have taken such cheap pot shots.

3) Where are the Palmers and Lucy Steele?
Fast forward to life at Barton Cottage: Mrs. Dashwood now must live on a pitiful income of 500 pounds per year. This means serious economizing and downsizing for the ladies Dashwood. Frequent meals at Barton Park help to defray some expenses. We meet Sir John Middleton and his brood, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings. The Palmers were practically non-existent, however. A new viewer would have no concept of Mr. Palmer’s rudeness, for example, or of Mrs. Palmer’s irritating gaiety. Lucy Steele, who came across as sweet and ditzy rather than manipulative, was given so little screen time that her marriage to Robert Ferrars must have come as a complete surprise to those who had not read the novel. However, to be fair to Andrew Davies, we are treated to a fine characterization of Miss Anne Steele, who as played by Daisy Haggard, nearly steals the show.

4) Marianne is Gentled Like a Horse

After her illness, Marianne is “gentled” by Colonel Brandon. In fact, her mother and sister look on approvingly as they watch the Colonel use a classic horse training technique of turning his back to Marianne to pique her interest. (“Nine times out of ten a wild horse would follow”, as Elinor remarked, watching the Colonel in action). In Mr. Davies quest to show Jane’s heroes in a more manly setting, we also see the Colonel tenderly handle a hawk. As Marianne looks on with stars in her eyes, Colonel Brandon commands softly, “Come here.” How subtle was that message? Excuse me, Mr. Davies, but women are not chattel and I was a bit put off by these scenes. As Mr. Knightley would say, “That was very badly done.”

However, I Liked this Film Adaptation Overall …

… and the aforementioned concerns did not ruin my enjoyment of the movie. Of the four new adaptations based on Jane’s novels shown this season, it is the best one. The film’s three-hour length allowed for a more leisurely exploration of Marianne’s infatuation with Willoughby (Dominic Cooper). We also see more of Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey), who is given as much screen time as Willoughby. We meet Mrs. Ferrars (Jean Marsh), a character as formidable and steely-eyed as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and, as mentioned before, Lucy Steele’s vulgar sister, Anne, makes an unforgettable appearance. However, other characters are hardly given the time of day, which makes me wish that all Jane Austen adaptations are required to be six hours in length, like A&E’s Pride and Prejudice.

I loved Hattie Morahan’s performance as Elinor Dashwood. Her Elinor is stoic, restrained, and vulnerable. We can feel her internal pain and struggle over Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele, and at Marianne’s side during her illness. In fact, I will no longer be able to read S&S in the future without seeing Hattie as Elinor.

If you have seen my avatar, you must have guessed how much I admire Kate Winslet’s robust performance as Marianne. In addition, my Jane Austen character quiz profile is Marianne, so I am particularly fond of this 17-year-old heroine. While I adore Kate’s interpretation, I found Charity Wakefield’s Marianne equally compelling, though in a sweeter, quieter way. She is young enough to play the part of a teenager, and her large expressive eyes lent a piquant touch to her character’s mixture of recklessness, immaturity, and innocence. In this adaptation Marianne is so heedless of convention, she is shown visiting Allenham with Willoughby, not merely speeding through town in a phaeton as in the 1996 adaptation.

I also thought that Marianne’s illness in the 2008 film adaptation, while not strictly accurate, was closer to Jane’s original intent. In the 1996 movie version, Marianne walked for miles in the rain to view Willoughby’s estate, and the sickroom scenes were so overwrought with emotion, that I thought, “Enough!” In this film’s more restrained sick room scenes, Colonel Brandon’s concern over Marianne’s condition is stressed as much as Elinor’s. His visit to her sick bed sets the stage for Marriane’s developing relationship with the Colonel and her interest in him as a suitor.

David Morrissey plays the Colonel heroically, and in my mind his interpretation of the character surpasses Alan Rickman’s. One explanation for this is that the Colonel’s scenes are fleshed out in S&S 2008, and we get to know him as a man as well as a long-suffering hero. Mr. Morrissey is also much handsomer than Jane describes, which places Dominic Cooper in a difficult position. His Willoughby is not quite good looking enough to play the role of a man who is described as surpassingly handsome. In fact, Dominic reminds me of The Artful Dodger all grown up. I know looks aren’t everything, but I fail to understand why Marianne is so drawn to Willoughby when such a handsome Colonel has been courting her. Oh, I know she was turned off by the Colonel’s age, but David Morrissey is so yummy that any self-respecting girl in need of a husband would not quibble with the age difference if he came a’calling.

Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars is also too handsome for the part, though I liked his kind eyes and expressive face. He is well matched with Hattie Morrahan in looks and height, and they seem like a perfect couple. It is entirely believable that Dan/Edward would be happy living the simple life of a minister in a small cottage with his frugal and practical Elinor.

Except for the Marianne-in-training sequences, I rather enjoyed our glimpses of our heroes in manly scenes, cutting wood, hunting, hawking, or riding flat out. Such touches are what make Andrew Davies adaptations stand out from the rest of the field.

I finish this review with Mrs. Dashwood. Ever since I saw Janet McTeer in Songcatcher, I have adored her. An actress with a remarkable scope and range, she played the widow and loving mother with the right amount of grief, bewilderment, and strength. Her realization that her cushy life was over when Elinor rejected her first two choices for a rental house foreshadowed the challenges she would have to face as a poor widow. However, except for some crucial scenes, Janet was given remarkably little to do in this film except to stand still for reaction shots. This is another strong argument for shooting a mini-series.

I have seen this film three times already and intend to see it again tonight. Needless to say, I highly recommend it. Oh, dear, I just had a thought. What will I do with my Sunday nights after The Complete Jane Austen series has ended? Watch A Room With a View, of course. The movie will be aired on Masterpiece Classic, April 13th, one week after Part II of Sense and Sensibility has aired.

Click here for my 2009 review of Sense and Sensibility, which features additional images.

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True or False? A single woman in possession of a good fortune has some free will in the choice of a husband. False, as far as Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood are concerned. The woman in question is Miss Morton, the late Lord Morton’s only daughter. This young lady not only comes from a good family, she is in possession of £30,000. Such prized attributes make her a hot commodity on the regency marriage mart.

In Sense and Sensibility, the reader is made acutely aware that Mrs. Ferrars has chosen Miss Morton for her eldest son, Edward. The readers never meet this poor girl, although her unseen presence looms large in the novel. Edward’s purse strings are controlled by his mother, and he stands to lose a fortune if he refuses to obey her. As Fanny Dashwood is quick to remind Mr. Dashwood, Edward will do his mother’s bidding. He has no choice.

Unbeknownst to both Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars, however, Edward has been engaged these many years to Lucy Steele, a little miss nobody with nothing but air and dust in her coffers. As soon as Mrs. Ferrars discovers this unpleasant fact, she disinherits Edward, and quickly switches sons on poor Miss Morton. This suggests that Robert and Edward are fairly interchangeable in their mother’s eyes*, and that Miss Morton would hardly notice the difference between them. (Or care if she did.)

As Miss Morton is lobbed from one son to the next, we begin to feel sorry for her. There is no mention of love or affection, merely the assumption that just as the Ferrars are after Miss Morton’s fortune, so Miss Morton must covet the Ferrars’s fortune. A conversation between an incredulous Elinor and her half-brother John Dashwood illustrates the point:

“We think NOW,”–said Mr. Dashwood, after a short pause, “of ROBERT’S marrying Miss Morton.”

Elinor, smiling at the grave and decisive importance of her brother’s tone, calmly replied,

“The lady, I suppose, has no choice in the affair.”

“Choice!–how do you mean?”

“I only mean that I suppose, from your manner of speaking, it must be the same to Miss Morton whether she marry Edward or Robert.”

“Certainly, there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son;–and as to any thing else, they are both very agreeable young men: I do not know that one is superior to the other.”

Poor Miss Morton: first regarded as a piece of goods, and then jilted by two men! What a degrading situation. Wait, perhaps not. She escaped a lifetime of domination by an awful mother-in-law. We might laugh today at this comedic situation, but in a highly stratified society the BUSINESS of marriage was taken seriously. After coming out, young women were expected to display themselves and their talents in the best light possible, or their prospects of marriage might dim. They spent the social whirl meeting the right people and being seen in the right places. I suspect, however, that Miss Morton with her £30,000 pounds would be regarded as a diamond of the first water even if she developed acne, and had cross eyes and a snaggle tooth.

For more on the topic, please click on the links below:

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Laurie Viera Rigler, author of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict and Margaret C. Sullivan, author of the Jane Austen Handbook, have just completed their thoughts about Sense and Sensibility 2008. Click on PBS’s Remotely Connected to read their views.

Then tune in on PBS Sunday night at 9 P.M. to watch the movie on Masterpiece Classic. The film will be show in two parts on March 30th and April 6th.

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PBS Masterpiece Classic resumed The Complete Jane Austen last Sunday with the rebroadcast of the 1997 adaptation of Emma. My favorable review of the film sits in the post below. Ellen Moody expressed different thoughts about Mr. Knightley in her blog, Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Too. Click here to read why she thinks there’s something odd about him.

Ellen is the creator of the Jane Austen almanac. If you haven’t yet come across her calendars of Jane’s novels, click here. They are remarkably useful.

Kaye Daycus compared the two Emmas in her Fun Friday review. I wonder what she’ll come up with for this Friday?

As always, there’s a lively discussion going on at Austen Blog. This time it’s Emma’s turn. Join in the fun and leave your opinion.

Over at Jane Austen Today, the second guest blogger, Barbara Larochelle, moderator of the Sense and Sensibility discussion group at The Republic of Pemberley, gives us her thoughts about the new film adaptation of Sense & Sensibility. I believe she likes it.

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Is Sunday night’s broadcast of the 1997 A&E version of Emma on Masterpiece Classic worth watching? Absolutely! Even those who liked Gwyneth Paltrow’s elegant interpretation of 20 year-old Miss Woodhouse as much as I did, will find Kate Beckinsale’s bossy Emma satisfying in a more down-to-earth way. When Kate made this film she had just completed her role as Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, a surprise cinematic hit.

Miss Emma Woodhouse, 20-year-old self-satisfied spinster

Kate plays the part of an interfering, well-meaning young woman with youthful ease and assurance. In addition, this actress is truly British, and she moves, talks, and acts naturally through the English landscape. I am always delighted to see a British actress play a British character (My apologies to Gwyneth, Renee Zellweger, and Anne Hathaway). I know many will disagree with me, but at times Gwyneth reminded me too much of a beautiful high fashion model with her uber thin, attenuated figure and modern facial features. She was as lovely to view as an Ingres line drawing, but I could relate to Kate’s old-fashioned prettiness better.

As you can see from the photos below, Kate’s range as an actress, when compared to supporting actress Samantha Morton, is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, she possessed sufficient acting chops to tackle this challenging role.

In these images (from left to right, top to bottom), Kate as Emma expresses 1) interest in Harriet when speaking to Mrs.Goddard, 2) a mixture of hurt and anger when listening to a lecture by Mr. Knightley, 3) proud admiration in viewing Mr. Knightley’s house, 4) disbelief and tender joy when Mr. Knightley proposes to her, 5) horror to Mr. Elton’s proposal, 6) envy listening to Jane Fairfax’s superior performance at the piano, 7) dreaminess after she and Mr. Knightley have declared their love for each other, and 8. polite and covert interest in Jane Fairfax as Miss Bates extols Jane’s virtues.
I love this reaction shot of Kate (below), whose expressions conveyed several emotions at once. Here, Emma has walked into Mr. Knightley’s sitting room, where she encounters her father by a small fire. Her face captures the combination of love, patience, forbearance, and puzzlement that Emma must have felt toward her father, as he once again frets and worries over minor points of comfort.

Miss Harriet Smith, 17-year old natural daughter of a gentleman

Movie buffs require no introduction to Samantha Morton, an actress so talented that one’s eyes immediately turn to her when she enters a scene.

Samantha’s Harriet Smith is all about innocence, naiveté, and puppyish eagerness to please. Her will – weak and easily persuaded – is sweet and passive. Emma couldn’t have found a more tractable person for her next project in matchmaking. Samantha’s artless Harriet, however, does not come across as dumb, for she often, though softly, questions Emma, and one senses throughout the film that she is unwilling quite to let go of her dream of living in a pretty yellow cottage with her yeoman farmer, Mr. Martin, and his two friendly, well-educated sisters. In Samantha’s interpretation of Harriet, we finally see a young woman worthy of Emma’s attempts at improvement.

While Toni Collette is a fine actress, whose turn as Cole’s frantic mother in The Sixth Sense moved me to tears, her plump, dumbed down Harriet left me perplexed and wondering what the elegant Gwyneth/Emma ever saw in her.

Mr. Knightley, 37-year-old gentleman, owner of Donwell Abbey, and Emma’s brother-in-law

Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightley sets the movie’s serious tone. His hawk-like features are dark, almost sinister, and his lithe, athletic figure moves with animal grace. In fact, Mark’s Mr. Knightley is dangerously and forcefully handsome, but not in a classical sense. His interpretation of Emma’s friend and lover is more vigorous than Jeremy Northam’s. Under repeated viewing and scrutiny, Mark’s performance holds up well. His angry encounters with Emma are a perfect foil to the moments when he is caught off guard tenderly watching her or smiling at something she has done or said, and after he proposes to her.
The change in Mark’s Mr. Knightley is most evident at the Harvest Ball, where he cannot contain his love for Emma. Many critics thought that this particular Mr. Knightley was too forceful, however I found that once he expressed his feelings for Emma, the change in his demeanor contributed to a completely satisfying romantic ending. The wolf has been tamed, and while we suspect that this Mr. Knightley will always be an exacting and demanding lover (ooh la la!), we also know that he will cherish Emma forever.

Critics of this movie will say it is too dark in tone, that the light-hearted spirit of Jane’s comedic novel was better captured by the 1996 theatrical film. Frankly, I prefer this film’s meatier fare. While Emma’s generous spirit and sincere interest in her charity work are largely ignored in this film version (and emphasized in Gwyneth’s Emma), Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are allowed to play out their charade under everyone’s noses, Bernard Hepton as Mr. Woodhouse is given free reign to explore his character, and the backdrop of regency life and manners is filmed in minute detail.

One of the film’s most important characters is the village of Highbury (played by Laycock, a National Trust village in Wiltshire.) This village is peopled with gentry, artisans, craftsmen, servants, and laborours going about their business. As the protagonists move through this landscape, the evidence of regency life playing itself out fascinated me – from Emma’s courtesy visits to Miss Bates – to the ball at the Crown Inn – to the seating at table, with Emma in the position of hostess, and Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Weston at the head of the table with Mr. Woodhouse – to the footman holding the candelabra up to Harriet’s picture so that everyone could see it better – to the farmers and their families harvesting grain before The Harvest Ball.

I found Gwyneth’s world overly beautiful, refined, and Hollywood-sanitized, but Kate’s world showed some rough edges, most particularly when depicting exactly how much hard labor was involved in supporting the lavish lifestyle of the landed gentry. Who can forget the strawberry picking scene at Donwell Abbey where footmen dressed in livery (an extreme sign of wealth) stood by each guest, moving the kneeling cushions along the rows of strawberries; or the servants laboring to cart furniture, dishes, and food up Box Hill in order to provide a bucolic outing for the guests? Or Frank’s gift of the piano being hoisted up to the second floor of Mrs. and Miss Bates’s rooms, because the stairs were too steep, winding, and narrow?

These typical touches of an Andrew Davies script influenced my decision: I prefer this cinematic version of Emma. Oh, please do feel free to quibble. As I watch Gwyneth’s version of Emma again, my preference just might swing back to that movie. When it comes to all things Jane Austen, I am known to be fickle!

Watch Emma tonight on Masterpiece Classic at 9 p.m. Read the reviews about Emma on PBS’s Remotely Connected, and details at this PBS site.

Can’t get enough of Emma? Please click on the following:

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Jane Austen Today will feature four guest writers in the next four weeks to discuss Emma, Sense and Sensibility, and the last three weeks of The Complete Jane Austen on PBS. The first entry with Kali Pappas is up. Kali wrote about what she knew best: the costumes that were used in Emma 1997, and how these clothes reflected character. The post is titled: Fashionable Emma Woodhouse: Costuming in Austen’s Emma Adapted. Kali created Emma Adaptations, the definitive blog about Emma. If you haven’t visited her blog, you are in for a treat. Along the way, stop over at Jane Austen Today and read her fabulous contribution.

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They had a very fine day for Box Hill … Nothing was wanting but to be happy when they got there. Seven miles were travelled in expectation of enjoyment, and every body had a burst of admiration on first arriving…Jane Austen, Emma


One of the most famous scenes in Emma is the picnic scene on Box Hill. Picnics were becoming increasingly popular at the turn of the nineteenth century, when romantic sensibility influenced the trend of eating out of doors as a way to commune with nature. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term picnic originally meant “A fashionable social entertainment in which each person present contributed a share of the provisions; now, A pleasure party including an excursion to some spot in the country where all partake of a repast out of doors: the participants may bring with them individually the viands and means of entertainment, or the whole may be provided by some one who ‘gives the picnic’. “

Even though picnicking became increasingly popular, arranging one was often no easy matter. According to Andrew Hubbell, author of How Wordsworth Invented Picnicking and Saved British Culture*:

To picnic is to consume not only particular food, but also a specific environment chosen according to an aesthetic standard, and a particular form of sharing food according to certain standards of behaviour. It means creating a moveable feast and overcoming difficulties and inconveniences, not only for preparation and transportation,but also for consumption and cleanup. Yet picnicking is the pleasurable pursuit of a leisured people, so the difficulty of moving the feast has some reward. The reward is primarily ideological: it enables the participant to share a form of eating that creates relationships between small groups of people, natural landmarks, and cultural ideals. These relationships form a consciousness of national identity. Picnicking, especially for early nineteenth-century picnickers, was thus away of performing Britishness.


This Romantic aesthetic can be witnessed in the A&E version of Emma, to be show on PBS this Sunday. Box Hill, the setting of Emma’s famous picnic, and comprising of woods and grassland, offered a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. The experience of eating in such a beautiful setting would appeal to both the eye and palate. Box Hill is covered with box trees, yew trees. and beeches and oaks. To this day, the area is filled with flowers and the sound of bird song, and fully two-thirds of the British butterfly species have been recorded at this site.**
As is still the custom, each member or group invited to a regency picnic brought a dish, usually carried in wicker baskets, for the others to enjoy. In this way a variety of dishes would be shared and tasted. However, without someone to guide them, guests would often bring similar foods. As picnics became more organized and elaborate, one person would take charge of assigning the dishes, ensuring the non-duplication of foods, or a host would offer to take over the responsibility of providing all the food.

As the 1997 A&E film demonstrates, these elegant and sumptuous picnics were not easy to accomplish. Teams of horses were arranged to transport wagons with picnickers, servants, food, and outdoor furniture. If the picturesque spot was located in an out of the way place, the party had to walk the remainder of the way with the supplies. The servants would lay out the dishes, and tables and cloths al fresco. After the parties had dined, these supplies needed to be repacked.

In the film, the servants were shown constantly working to provide a leisurely and pleasurable outing for the picnickers. Their hard work was for naught, however, since no one in the party, most particularly Emma, seemed to be having a good time. As the afternoon progressed, the underlying tension among the diners erupted with Emma’s cruel comment towards Miss Bates.

The Box Hill scene in Emma is pivotal. After Emma insults Miss Bates, Mr. Knightley angrily confronts her about her behavior. Unable to remain blind to her own faults, Emma begins to change and grow. She realizes how much she craves Mr. Knightley’s good judgment, which leads her to a later revelation that she loves him.

Interestingly, at the strawberry-picking at Donwell Abbey the day before, Mr. Knightley says to Mrs. Elton: “The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants, and furniture, I think is best observed by meals within doors.” Given how utterly the Box Hill excursion failed to entertain the picnickers, his words were prophetic.

To read more about the origins of picnics, and about Box Hill, click on the long list of links below.

Box Hill, Emma

Physical Setting of Box Hill

The History of Picnics


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