Posted in First Take

[1995] Sense and Sensibility

Of the 512 films nominated since 1927, only a handful exist that I have almost no interest in seeing. Sense and Sensibility was one of them: on my initial screen, I audibly cringed when I approached 1995 and saw that, along with Il Postino, I had yet to see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel bearing the same name and the same tired, stepping-on-legos annoying people that plagued Ms. Austen’s novels and those of her contemporaries’, too. But it’s important to the blog and to my understanding of film history that I watch all the movies available irrespective of my aversion to them. I still find it crucial that the Academy chose each film based on specific criteria, and that each year’s winner exemplified some zeitgeist-affirming premise, or more likely, mood.

That said, it’s hard to argue against Sense and Sensibility for a nomination: the cast is impeccably English and Austen-esque, Thompson’s adaptation rightly (for film) exaggerates certain aspects about the Dashwood ladies’ wealth, and modernizes some of the male leads to better attract a more modern audience. Lee’s wide shots and modest cuts between scenes created, if nothing else, a beautifully filmed 2-hour adaptation. Really, though, nothing else: Austen, like the Brontë sisters, created this fantastical world where every sister or mother is clever and brooding and every man is either dashing or hopeless, but cruel nevertheless.

Thompson captured the essence of this story with fluidity and passion, but even with her sharp pen, the story suffers from a wanton ambivalence towards any of her characters and a waning clarity regarding the feelings of her moste brooding Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sufferers of too many male suitors and not enough money to live in a gigantic estate, only a smaller one. At its core Austen’s novel and Thompson’s adaptation proxies Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, within which the brooding lover decides whether she will choose sense or sensibility, never bits of both, but in truth makes no choice, simply an acceptance of fate. Oh the cruelty of Mrs. Dashwood’s husband’s first ex-wife! Oh, my word Colonel Brandon, dashing and handsome, are you too gentle and too schooled on the harshness of the world to love? Are you too sensible for me you old man of 35? Do I sense that you, Mssr. John Willoughby, dashing and handsome, schooled in the fantastical currency of culture and a passion for the senses? Will you betray the poor(ish, not really), beautiful Miss Marianne? Ah Hugh Grant! Will you show up shape-shifted into another bumbling do-gooder who can’t do good right? 

Thompson and producer Sidney Pollack’s source changes, indelibly attached to this film, dramatically overstated some of Austen’s more delicate points to help create a sense of urgency for the film. The most pressing example is Elinor Dashwood’s age: in the novel, and in early 19th century, nineteen is old for a woman to be unmarried and penniless. Because of her social status as a lady, she can’t simply get a job and earn a living or go romping around London to find a male suitor – this concept is foreign to the more modern, 21st-century woman. Pollack suggested, rightly, that Thompson should age up Elinor’s character to more accurately convey a quiet desperation; this worked two-fold because it also allowed the 35-year-old Thompson to more realistically play the character as a 27-year-old. Thompson also allowed some of the male suitors a more consistent role in the film, as to keep them relevant to the audience, whose attention shifts at will with visual representation. This seemingly innocuous change propelled some of the characters, notably the Ferrars brothers, from relatively minor foils to important and annoying Hugh Grants.

I’m very biased towards this genre. These archetypical stories demonstrate very little depth, albeit an “accurate” representation of 18th and 19th century English primness and propriety. While it’s important to study and draw inference from this time of breeches and pantaloons, Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre should not wax poetic about what it means to be a man or a woman. It’s frustrating to a fault, listening to so many people endlessly wonder about their lovers, as if their only problems always skew towards to self-loathing concept of love, hate, lust, and Hugh Grant.

The real reason I suffered through 1995’s Sense and Sensibility is to have finished out this year, the first of the 86 years from which I’ve watched all of the Best Picture nominations. Granted, I’m only watching films I hadn’t yet seen and 1995 was an easy year by comparison: I’d already seen winner Braveheart and two others of the nominees, Babe and Apollo 13, almost when they’d come out in theatres (I was 7). A few months back I thoroughly enjoyed Il Postino and with Sense an Sensibility, I’ve rounded out the year. So here’s the question: does Braveheart deserve to represent 1995 in the canon of Academy Award winners? Unquestionably, yes. Braveheart is Mel Gibson’s best work, produced right in the centre of his action movie career and his bat-shit crazy religious films of 2000 on. Braveheart is an epic, fantasy-oriented, but still historically intriguing 4-hours demi-biography: probably accurately representing the bloated and in-flux 1995. Up against 4 films either too childish (Babe), too frustrating (Sense and Sensibility) or too foreign (Il Postino), Braveheart smacked the middle of the 1990s with a damn good action film, that makes almost no attempt to convey accuracy. Seems very 1995.

Braveheart is not one of the best films of the 1990s, but it was sure more deserving of a Best Picture win than the frustrating Sense and Sensibility.

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