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.