by Brendan Foley

At his best, Ang Lee is a poet of repression, able to capture in exact and excruciating detail the push and pull between the heart and mind, between the soul and society, between what we want for ourselves and what is demanded of us. His work can range from the rapturous (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to the stultifying (Hulk [I know Hulk has its defenders. That’s fine, but you are wrong]) and thankfully Sense And Sensibility, new on Blu from Twilight Time, is much more the former than the latter.

Adapted by Emma Thompson from Jane Austen’s novel, Sense And Sensibility depicts the lives of the Dashwood ladies, particularly Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (a very young Kate Winslet). After their wealthy father dies, all his inheritance is passed to his son from a previous marriage. The son (pushed by his greedy wife) quickly reneges on his promise to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters and leaves them in virtual poverty (I mean, they still wear gorgeous outfits and have servants and all, so it’s more poverty-ish but you get the idea).

The bulk of the film concerns the woes of love that befall Elinor and Marianne, as they navigate the rigid law and social standings of ‘polite’ society. Elinor’s getting to be the age when spinsterhood is becoming a genuine possibility, a situation not helped by the way she has ironclad her heart and placed the utmost importance on concerns of manner and order.

Marianne is the opposite, a creature of absolute emotion. Marianne loves with her whole heart, entranced by visions of great romances and dashing heroes. It’s interesting that Winslet has become so adept at playing women whose hearts have been curdled cure of love, as her younger roles often had her display an outsized passion (BTW, according to Wikipedia, Lee didn’t want to let Winslet audition because he disliked her work in Heavenly Creatures. What the shit are you on about, Ang?)

Anyway, Elinor spends a great deal of the film pining after Edward Ferrars (an uglied up Hugh Grant), the brother of the greedy piece of garbage who landed the Dashwoods in their impoverished mess in the first place, but society, her own taciturn nature, and a somewhat aggressively convoluted plot conspire to keep them apart. Marianne meanwhile chases after John Willougby (Greg Wise) a guy who is one ripped blouse away from being on the cover of a dime store romance. All along, Marianne is pined after by Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), an older gentleman who houses some dark secrets of his own.

If all that sounds like corseted soap opera… well… it is. My assumption with Austen is to expect a certain degree of stuffiness, if only because we used to have to watch those BBC miniseries in English class and they were roughly the equivalent of watching charmingly accented paint dry. Apologies to Colin Firth.

But Thompson and Lee are too smart for that. Thompson’s script is a quick-witted marvel, loaded up as it is with memorable supporting players to keep laughs coming and the plot moving quickly. Hugh Laurie scores giant laughs by underplaying his every line, while Imelda Staunton, who I hate with the fire of a thousand suns because of what she did to Harry Potter that awful awful awful woman, is simply wonderful as a motor-mouthed acquaintance of the Dashwoods.

Thompson has an even keener ear for drama. Her script sings with it, lending electric harmony to scenes that could easily be overbearing or overwritten. These characters exist in a world obsessed with station and patterns of behavior, so every word in every interaction must be weighted before being spoken. When a crestfallen Rickman intones to Thompson, “To your sister I wish all imaginable happiness” every word is laden with so much loss and love, heartbreak almost unbearable resting in every pause.

I wouldn’t normally describe Lee as having a light touch, but that’s certainly the case with this film. He keeps the emotions at the forefront of the story and keeps things moving quickly so you hardly feel the movie’s two-plus hours. It helps that every frame is a goddamn wonder, with the rolling green fields of England almost bleeding off the TV set, so beautiful is the color and composition of the image on Blu.

But the film ultimately comes down to Thomson and Winslet, and both accomplish genuine wonders with their performances. For Winslet, it would be so easy to have Marianne’s childish infatuations come across as, well, childish. And shallow. And, sure, they do, but she is so genuine and unthinking in her embrace of life and love that you want to celebrate those qualities, not see them snuffed out. And when the film takes Marianne on a dark turn, Winslet doesn’t flinch. She ably plays the transition from lovestruck child to adult woman, with all the damage and accrued wisdom that that implies. I’ll bet she goes places, that Kate Winslet.

And then there’s Emma. I, like all right thinking individuals, love Emma Thompson. No particular reason, she just seems better than most people. Also, she’s Nanny McPhee and Sybil Trelawney, and that counts for a lot. But I’ve never adored her on screen quite as much as I did here. Elinor is a woman who has no interest in revealing her heart, and yet Thompson’s performance never leaves you in doubt as to where that heart is aimed and how it aches and yearns far beyond what is allowed to be expressed. And when the dam finally does break and her guard finally does fall, it is beautifully devastating in the way that all the best love stories should aspire to be.

So Sense & Sensibility gets a hearty recommend from me. I’m not going to go put on a dress and run through the fields like Austenland-ladies (or, if I do, it’ll be for my own damn reasons) but Lee and Thompson and their exceptional cast drilled down past the period trappings and antiquated language and found the aching human core at the heart of the story and brought it to warm and loving life. Your Blu-ray shelf will be all the better for having this film on it.

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