Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Media Mom After Dark: Sense and Sensibility

Apologies for the delay in posting. My family and I were fighting the Cold That Wouldn't Die. Difficult to write when you can barely see the keyboard due to coughing so much.

This being February I thought I might review some of my favorite romantic classics. And I had planned to post the first one last week in tribute to the late, great Alan Rickman. Not a man one would normally associate with romance (what with frequently playing villains and all), Rickman still managed to pull off at least one performance as a romantic lead. And it is, perhaps, one of the most underrated and under-appreciated performances of his career. I speak of course of the Jane Austen classic, Sense and Sensibility.
The story begins as any good romance should- with death. John Dashwood's father is dying. And before he does, he bequeaths his entire (rather extensive) estate to his only son. Legal entanglements prevent the fortune from being split up, and so John is charged to care financially for his step mother and three half-sisters: Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. At first, John means to give them a sizable living. But his own greed, and the cold, callous, haughty nature of his wife Fanny eventually whittles the generous intention down to bestowing the ladies with little more than pittance to live on. They swoop in to take possession of the family manor, and Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are reduced to being guests in their own home.

While the Dashwood ladies are trying to find new accommodations, Fanny's brother Edward Ferrars comes for a visit. His shy, humble nature eventually wins the heart of equally modest and reserved Elinor. But Fanny and her controlling mother have higher ambitions for Edward (whether he likes it or not) and make very plain their displeasure at the potential match. Before long, the ladies have found a modest house to rent, thanks to the charity of Mrs. Dashwood's caring but socially inept cousin Sir John Middleton.

It is Sir John's closest friend Colonel Brandon who is quickly smitten by beautiful, passionate Marianne. But after a chance meeting, Marianne's head is turned instead by the dashing John Willoughby. He is a man with a roguish grin and a sharp wit...and a sizable fortune of his own. With the two elder Dashwood girls pining away after their respective loves, it seems only natural that one or both should marry before long.

But this is a Jane Austen novel. And love is never straightforward in Austen's world. Secrets are revealed about both men that could ruin both relationships permanently. Will Elinor and Edward manage to overcome Fanny's shallow disapproval (and Edward's duty to an old promise) and find true love? Will Marianne and Willoughby run off in a whirlwind of passion? And what of poor Colonel Brandon? Can a thrity-five year old man charmed by Marianne's beauty but as modest and reserved as Elinor find love with either one, or even at all?
This film is a masterpiece of story telling. To be honest, the book was, too. It's often forgotten in the wake of Austen's more popular novel Pride and Prejudice (another review I plan on doing this month) but it's equally worthy of praise and admiration, especially considering the strong messages it conveys.

Elinor is a woman of practicality, duty, and honor. Love, in her mind, can only thrive in the proper environment: social and familial acceptance, compatible temperaments, and mutual affection and dedication. While she dearly loves Edward, she knows it wouldn't do to let her head run away with her heart. One must be stable, calm, and reasonable about such things. And when an old promise takes precedent over her claim on Edward, she realizes the honorable thing to do is to step back, even though it will destroy her own happiness.

Marianne, meanwhile, is red blooded, hot headed, and free spirited. Perhaps a bit too much so. She's all passion and romance, especially when it comes to Willoughby, but at the cost of her self-control and good judgment. And when dark secrets come up from Willoughby's past, her immature response quite literally almost gets her killed.

The title Sense and Sensibility doesn't carry quite the same meaning now that it did in Austen's day. We often equate the two as being related. But a more archaic use of the word sensibility relates to one's ability to feel. Your "sense ability" as it were. In light of that, it's easy to see that Elinor is all sense (that is, reason) while Marianne is all sensibility (that is, emotion).
So many feels, so little time...
Austen herself encountered quite a bit of controversy when she published the book. Some argued that, since Elinor eventually did marry Edward, it would seem that sense triumphed over all. But many modern scholars have speculated that it was never Austen's intention that one be considered better than the other. Rather, it was an indication that balance between the two in any relationship is paramount. Marianne's sensibility overpowered her good sense and her consequences were obvious. But Elinor's overbearing sense of duty caused her to bottle up her feelings in unhealthy ways and she spent a great deal of time carrying unnecessary emotional burdens.

Besides the messages, though, the acting and writing is phenomenal. Emma Thompson (who not only portrayed Elinor in the film, but also wrote the screenplay) simply soars in this film. I've always been a fan of her acting ability, and this film is definitely one of her best. Kate Winslet (who played Marianne and is an actress I've never particularly cared for) actually does a very good job playing her part, as well.

The rest of the cast is fairly decent. Not spectacular, but not awful. With two exceptions. One is Hugh Laurie's Mr. Palmer. I've always liked Laurie as a comedic actor. I was a big fan of his when he worked with Stephen Fry on their skit show, A Bit of Fry and Laurie. Mr. Palmer may not have much of a role in this film, but for the short time he's on screen, Laurie milks the character for all he's worth. It's a welcome relief throughout the film.

The other is Alan Rickman's Colonel Brandon. Rickman, who hadn't really played a romantic lead up until this point (and to my knowledge, never did again) straight up owns this character. He's quiet, sober, and obviously lonely. He's a man who's had his heart broken once before, and who guards it ever more vigilantly now. I almost felt as if he deserved better than Marianne, and had it not been for Edward, I'd have thought he and Elinor would have made a smart match. But opposites do attract, and in many ways, he and Marianne complement one another. His sober-mindedness is just what she needs to keep her grounded in reality. Her carefree spirit is enough to breach the walls he's built around his heart and let him love again. It is, without doubt, one of his best performances. I only wish he'd been given the chance to play a romantic lead more often. He was truly a remarkable and versatile actor and will be sorely missed.
In all, it's a great classic, and as a bonus the film is completely chaste so there's nothing your teens would be embarrassed to see. So, if you're thinking of having a movie night with your teenage daughters, this is definitely tops on my recommended list. They'll be absorbing the culture associated with the classic novel and you'll have fodder for plenty of after-movie conversations about how exactly they should approach their romantic relationships when pursuing marriage. Win-win!


  1. Great review! I love the book and this movie, but I never knew about the intended meaning of the title. It makes more sense now. I love Hugh Laurie in his role as Bertie Wooster and with Steven Fry in Jeeves and Wooster. :)