Another favorite film of mine. Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Austen’s book is hands down one of the best I’ve ever seen. Really sad, touching, romantic, bittersweet story of two sisters and their families and loves. And NO, it’s NOT about Elinor Dashwood learning to express her emotions — it’s about Marianne Dashwood learning to moderate hers! Kate Winslet is RIVETING as Marianne, Emma Thompson really nails the feeling of Elinor (even if the role was rewritten to make Elinor older) — and the rest of the cast is fabulous too. Great costumes set in the 1790s — adapted a bit for a modern audience in that the skirts aren’t quite as full as they could be, but still beautiful and an interesting look at a period that most films skip over. Love the hats!
I complain about how the 2008 Sense & Sensibility portrays Brandon’s behavior with Marianne (particularly towards the end) as dominating. It isn’t even subtext–Elinor actually says that he is like a “tamer of horses.” But as bad as that is, this 1995 S&S doesn’t present the Marianne-Brandon relationship in a much better light–it’s maybe a 6 to the 2008’s 7-7.5 or so on the Disturbing Implications in Relationships Scale. In the last scenes, Kate Winslet seems very clingy and childlike, pleading for reassurance from Brandon as if she is addressing a father figure instead of a romantic interest. Yes, Brandon is supposed to be about twice her age (and Alan Rickman was even older than that), but making Marianne appear so childish, clingy, and submissive when, earlier in the film, she was independent-minded and assertive, only emphasizes the age gap. Ang Lee’s body of work clearly indicates that he has daddy issues, so it’s quite possible that this was intentional. I think it was a mistake, though. Really, the only depiction of the Marianne-Brandon relationship that I think is fairly decent is the one in the 1971 BBC adaptation, where the characters appear to be on roughly equal footing and there are no control issues. The 1981 BBC version is very faithful to the source material, but, like the 2008 and 1995 versions, it places Marianne in a position of submission to Brandon–in this case, parroting his opinions on literature after one conversation in the bedroom. It’s interesting that the oldest adaptation–the 1971 version–actually seems to be the most progressive by a wide margin.
Another thing that I dislike about the 1995 adaptation is its rather misogynistic attitude. Two important female characters from the book–Lady Middleton and Anne Steele–don’t even exist in the film, and one–the old Mrs. Ferrars–is never shown onscreen. No key male characters (with the exception of John and Fanny Dashwood’s son, who is a child) are omitted, so this is obviously sexism. Additionally, the film makes light of Charlotte Palmer’s bad marriage, presenting her as a shrill, stupid figure of ridicule who unthinkingly makes life hell for her long-suffering husband, Mr. Palmer. In the book, Mr. Palmer is far less sympathetic than he is in the 1995 film, and his nastiness and rudeness to his wife and other women is certainly not intended to be cute. Hugh Laurie was probably just doing what he was directed to do, but I think that making Mr. Palmer a sympathetic figure was a huge mistake.
This casual sexism seems to have been a bit of a pattern in 1990s Austen adaptations; the highly-acclaimed 1995 Pride and Prejudice does the same thing by making Mrs. Bennet a shrill harpy, basically. Of course Mr. Bennet looks so much better in comparison with a Mrs. Bennet as completely obnoxious and over-the-top as Alison Steadman’s portrayal, and the film (well, miniseries) encourages us to sympathize with him. In the book, Mr. Bennet is a horrible father and a worse husband, who married his wife merely because he thought she was pretty and lively (Alison Steadman isn’t an unattractive person, but she wears unflattering hairstyles and makeup in P&P, which serves to downplay her looks). Similarly, Mr. Palmer in S&S is a jerk who publicly slights his own child (even though Austen writes that he really does like the child and only pretends not to), and married Charlotte for her beauty and liveliness. Imelda Staunton is a good actress, and I don’t blame her for the choices that were made regarding Mrs. Palmer, but her portrayal is obnoxious and silly (note that she is the only one to shriek and panic when the doctor in the film diagnoses Marianne–the men, including Mr. Palmer, remain calm, as does Elinor, the film’s “exceptional woman” who obviously “isn’t like all those other girls” :-P ). Furthermore, Staunton is not a conventionally-attractive woman, and she is much older than Mrs. Palmer is supposed to be. The 2008 adaptation downplayed the Palmers a bit too much, but aside from that, the portrayals are quite good, especially when compared with those in the 1995 film.
I have issues with nearly all JA characters…and dislike nearly all the male ones. They are weak, like Mr. Bennett and both male heros in MP and S&S, fools like Collins, or “rakes” who take liberties with young women. Even Brandon gives me the creeps a little due to the age difference, but that was not a big issue at the time. And the women are self-sacrificing like Eleanor and Anne in Persuasion or silly like Marianne and Lydia, while rich old women are shrews or feather headed. Only the heroines can have good sense.
I don’t agree that all of Austen’s male characters are weak or creepy. Films like this 1995 one certainly give that impression, but Austen’s books tell a different story.
And did you know that, in the book, Mrs. Jennings actually stays to help nurse Marianne at Cleveland? In the 1995 film, this wonderful example of her kindness and humanity is completely omitted, and she is reduced to a mere comic figure. Mrs. Palmer is made to be a shrieking shrew, as you say, but in the book, she’s not nearly so horrible. The film makes a mockery of Mrs. Palmer’s reaction to Marianne’s illness, for the purpose of making both the men (Mr. Palmer, primarily, though) and Emma Thompson’s “not like all those other girls” version of Elinor look good.
Lighten up, it’s a movie
You’re voluntarily reading articles on a site that focuses on both movie costume critiques AND feminist readings of films, and you’re telling people to lighten up and stop criticizing?
To be honest, there are a lot of things that are wrong with this one. The bust silhouettes of Thompson and Winslet are wrong, the skirts’ lack of fullness is wrong, Thompson’s hair twists are wrong (I have yet to see a single portrait from the era that shows those), Thompson’s fringe is wrong, the colors are not exactly right (in the 1790s, white was extremely fashionable, so it’s unlikely that wealthy women–and it’s clear that the Dashwoods in the film ARE wealthy in the beginning–would have worn so few white dresses), Thompson’s eyeshadow is wrong, Rickman’s hair is wrong, the pointy sideburns are silly, the men’s clothes in general are cut more like 1990s outfits than 1790s, Grant’s costumes don’t fit, the military uniforms are laughable, etc.
It’s not worse than most Austen adaptations, and is better than many, but that just shows how low the bar is set for “women’s” films. I wish such films were taken as seriously as “male” movies.