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The dramatic moments of Marianne’s illness in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility start when Marianne (Kate Winslet) walks in the pouring rain to view Willoughby’s estate, Combe Magna, from atop a hill. The musical strains swell as rivulets of water pour down her face and figure. Then Marianne quotes a Shakespearean Sonnet 116 that Willoughby had read to her in happier days, which she starts with the phrase, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.” One is touched by Marianne’s emotional anguish, which is echoed by the roiling clouds overhead. Kate’s performance tugs at my heartstrings and tears still come to my eyes when I see this scene. Call me a hopeless romantic.

However, the scene is more reminiscent of Wuthering Heights than of a Jane Austen novel. Young Kate Winslet acts out Marianne’s torment so convincingly that one forgets that these are Emma Thompson’s words, not Jane Austen’s. Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman) finds Marianne and carries her back in his manly arms. To his credit, he staggers under his load only just before he hands her over to Mr. Palmer and Elinor.

Much anxiety ensues, with the Colonel pacing the halls until he is given ‘employment’, and asked to fetch Mrs. Dashwood, who lives 80 miles away. Unspoken but implied is that he might be too late. Elinor/Emma weeps as she tends to Marianne, the doctor spends the night in a nearby chair, and we are all left in suspense: Will Marianne/Kate survive the night? All this Sturm und Drang is a bit overwrought, but these scenes provide the emotional turning point of this film adaptation.

I first saw the 1995 movie in the theatre just weeks after its premiere. When Marianne was clearly on the mend, I recall feeling as wrung out as Elinor. In case my words seem just a tad facetious (and they are), I adored this film. However, the script of this movie is to a Jane Austen novel what Tex-Mex cuisine is to real Mexican food – there is just enough authenticity to fool one into thinking that one has actually experienced the real thing.

Interestingly, in the most recent 2008 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, written by Andrew Davies, Marianne (Charity Wakefield) also wanders around the gardens of Cleveland in a steady drizzle. She finds shelter under a gazebo, but then she deliberately stands under the rain, welcoming its healing effect. I suppose this ritual cleansing is meant to be symbolic. Weakened from lack of sleep and worry, Marianne succumbs to the chill and faints. She is gone for such a long time, that Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) goes out to search for her. Riding his white steed (oh, don’t you just love these Jungian-Arthurian-Shakespearean symbols?), he finds her. Then, in a moment I find perplexing, for his trusty horse is standing at the ready, he carries her back to the house. Andrew Davies, please have mercy on the poor horse! While David Morrissey has the physical heft to pull off this scene (and he does deposit Marianne safely in her bed), you have deprived that lovely white steed of its employment. Ellen Moody gave a possible explanation for all this romantic drama in her post. Click here to read it.

Both films have mined Marianne’s illness for its full emotional depth. However, in Jane Austen’s words, the onset of Marianne’s illness is much less dramatic, and Colonel Brandon is nowhere to be seen:

Two delightful twilight walks on the third and fourth evenings of her being there, not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where there was something more of wildness than in the rest, where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the longest and wettest, had — assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings — given Marianne a cold so violent, as, though for a day or two trifled with or denied, would force itself by increasing ailments on the concern of everybody, and the notice of herself. Prescriptions poured in from all quarters, and as usual were all declined. Though heavy and feverish, with a pain in her limbs, a cough, and a sore throat, a good night’s rest was to cure her entirely; and it was with difficulty that Elinor prevailed on her, when she went to bed, to try one or two of the simplest of the remedies. Sense and Sensibility, Volume 3, Chapter 6.

Jane then goes on to describe a cold that settles in Marianne’s lungs, and that the doctor declares infectious. The Palmers leave, worried for their newborn baby. For two days Marianne’s situation does not change, and there is hope for a speedy recovery, but by the third day Marianne’s condition worsens and in a feverish delirium she starts calling for her mother. Enter the Colonel:

He, meanwhile, whatever he might feel, acted with all the firmness of a collected mind, made every necessary arrangement with the utmost dispatch, and calculated with exactness the time in which she might look for his return. Not a moment was lost in delay of any kind. The horses arrived, even before they were expected, and Colonel Brandon only pressing her hand with a look of solemnity, and a few words spoken too low to reach her ear, hurried into the carriage. It was then about twelve o’clock, and she returned to her sister’s apartment to wait for the arrival of the apothecary, and to watch by her the rest of the night.

Colonel Brandon leaves to procure Mrs. Dashwood, and Elinor is left alone (with Mrs. Jennings) to nurse Marianne and fret over her condition. Elinor’s suffering is real: “She was calm, except when she thought of her mother; but she was almost hopeless; and in this state she continued till noon, scarcely stirring from her sister’s bed, her thoughts wandering from one image of grief, one suffering friend to another, and her spirits
oppressed to the utmost by the conversation.”

Marianne’s situation is touch and go. The apothecary, Mr. Harris, attempts every remedy at his disposal, and promises to return in a three or four hour interval. In his second visit, he realizes his medicine has failed, and that Marianne’s fever remains unabated. He tries a fresh application of a medication in which he has almost as much confidence as the first, and then he leaves. Elinor spends a restless, sleepless night, worried about her mother, but she forces herself to remain calm.

About noon, however, she began–but with a caution—a dread of disappointment which for some time kept her silent, even to her friend–to fancy, to hope she could perceive a slight amendment in her sister’s pulse;–she waited, watched, and examined it again and again;–and at last, with an agitation more difficult to bury under exterior calmness, than all her foregoing distress, ventured to communicate her hopes.

During these scenes, both Elinor/Emma and Elinor/Hattie are true to Jane’s description of Elinor’s conduct through this long, anxious night. Waiting for the Colonel and her mother, Elinor hears: “The bustle in the vestibule, as she passed along an inner lobby, assured her that they were already in the house. She rushed to the drawing-room,–she entered it,–and saw only Willoughby.”

The Ang Lee film does not include this important scene. Instead, it shows a regretful Willoughby sitting at a distance on his horse, observing Marianne walking from the chapel with her new husband. The new 3-hour S&S adaptation takes the time to address Willoughby’s excuse for his bad behavior and his feelings for Marianne. “I mean to offer some kind of explanation,” he says to Elinor, “some kind of apology, for the past; to open my whole heart to you, and by convincing you, that though I have been always a blockhead, I have not been always a rascal, to obtain something like forgiveness from Ma–from your sister.”

Unlike the novel, the 2008 film shows Marianne eavesdropping. This ending sets the stage for her transformation. Her eyes are opened to Willoughby, allowing her to heal and open her heart to Colonel Brandon. Many find this section of the book implausible. How could someone with Marianne’s romantic nature do the sensible thing and marry the Colonel? Jane describes Marianne’s situation as thus:

Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting,–instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on,– she found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.

My sensible self likes to think that a romantically minded 17-year-old can emerge wiser two years later. Marianne not only learned from adversity, but I imagine she will continue to mature and grow throughout her life.

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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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