2008, U.K., 174 minutes
Directed by John Alexander
Written by Andrew Davies, based on Jane Austen's novel
With: Hattie Morahan, Charity Wakefield, David Morrissey, Dominic Cooper, Dan Stevens, Janet McTeer
Any doubts about the necessity of another production of Jane Austen's "Sense & Sensibility" just a dozen years after Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's four-star adaptation are quickly allayed in this new BBC/"Masterpiece Theatre" miniseries. Scripted by Andrew Davies (he's gold, with "To Serve Them All My Days," "House of Cards," the Colin Firth "Pride and Prejudice," "Bridget Jones's Diary" and "Bleak House" among his impressive credits), the richly shot three-hour film can stand next to Lee's in any tale-of-the-tape comparison.
In an interview on the first DVD in this two-disk set, Davies and producer Anne Pivcevic agree that with source material as good as Austen's book, it all comes down to casting, and, with one or two exceptions, the actors seem to have been born to play the roles. Hattie Morahan, as 19-year-old eldest Dashwood sister Elinor, the role played earlier by Emma Thompson, perfectly embodies the "sense" half of the title (and can pull off "19" much more convincingly than Thompson, who was 36 in 1995). Elinor keeps her feelings in check (and to herself), unlike her more beautiful 16-year-old sister Marianne (Charity Wakefield here, Kate Winslet in Lee's film), whose "sensibility" -- meaning overemotionalism or romanticism -- nearly proves her undoing. For Marianne's two suitors, young Willoughby and 35-year-old Colonel Brandon, we get Dominic Cooper and David Morrissey, both giving a much younger appearance closer to their roles than did their predecessors, Greg Wise and the desiccated Alan Rickman. Cooper and Morrissey bring originality to their performances, but as Elinor's guy, Edward Ferrars, Dan Stevens looks and behaves like a Hugh Grant clone.
Davies and director John Alexander open the first episode with a pre-credit scene of sexual seduction that is definitely not from the pages of Austen; the man and woman involved aren't clearly revealed and it's only much later in the story that we realize who they are. But the story thenceforth follows the book and the earlier film fairly closely. The elderly Mr. Dashwood of stately Norland Park in his dying breath tells his son John (Mark Gatiss), the product of an earlier marriage, to care for Mr. Dashwood's current wife and their three daughters, Elinor, Marianne and 12-year-old Margaret.
Under English law at the time, a man's wealth passed down to a male heir, so the widow Dashwood and her girls find themselves at the mercy of their stepson/half-brother. John Dashwood is a kind soul, but he is weak-willed and is no match for his greedy wife, Fanny (Claire Skinner), who, in a masterful bit of writing and acting, talks her generous husband into reducing the money he wants to give the women to nearly nothing. As soon as old Mr. Dashwood is in the ground, Fanny comes to "visit" the Norland mansion and makes it clear that she is moving in and the Dashwood women are moving out.
Faced suddenly with severely reduced circumstances, the women accept an offer from Mrs. Dashwood's cousin Sir John Middleton to live in a cottage near his own estate, Barton Park. Middleton (Mark Williams) and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett), are two of Austen's early comic triumphs, good-hearted people of wealth who egg the girls on about their potential paramours. Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John's, pays a visit and is instantly taken with Marianne, explaining later that she reminds him of the love of his early life, who died tragically. Marianne, however, deems Brandon too old for her and instead "sets her cap" on Willoughby, a handsome young stranger who carries her home after she has fallen on a hillside and twisted her ankle.helped. Being the heir to an estate of his own adds to Willoughby's attractions.
Meanwhile, Elinor has formed an attachment with Fanny Dashwood's brother Edward Ferrars, a sensitive soul who wants to live the simple life of a village vicar but is under the thumb of his wealthy, domineering mother, Mrs. Ferrars (Jean Marsh). He wants to declare his love to Elinor but knowing his mother would not approve of such a match, leaves her hanging and wondering about his intentions.
In this tale as suspenseful as any thriller, Austen unravels a knot of secret engagements, illicit affairs and an illegitimate child, and ties it all up again in breathtaking fashion - quite something considering Austen was just 19 when she wrote the first draft of this, her first published novel.
Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's 1995 "Sense" has a few advantages over this new BBC production. The secret engagement of Edward Ferrars and the calculating Lucy Steele is not so satisfyingly sorted out in the BBC series as it is in the movie. When Marianne catches a deadly fever while staying at the estate of Mrs. Jennings' daughter and son-in-law, the Palmers, the BBC show is missing the movie's comic highlight when Mrs. Palmer is told to remove her infant child from the house immediately. The new Mr. Palmer (Tim McMullen) barely registers as a character, while Hugh Laurie's portrayal gave the man both biting humor and unexpected warmth. And Hattie Morahan's breakdown scene near the end when she realizes all her hopes aren't lost after all is good acting but a fair bit short of Emma Thompson's famous eruption of tears and laughter.
Neither production gets around what seems to me to be a flaw in logic: If Edward's mother disinherits him because of his engagement to the uncouth, money-hungry Lucy, why does she transfer the inheritance to her other son Robert, even after Lucy has shifted her own "affections" to Robert and married him? That's a minor quibble about an otherwise handsome and moving production. This new version may not make anyone forget the earlier movie, but accepting and enjoying them both makes perfect sense.
Four new BBC productions aired this season on "Masterpiece Theatre" under the umbrella title "The Complete Jane Austen." Two of them, "Sense & Sensibility" and "Persuasion," have been issued on DVD by BBC Video; the others, "Mansfield Park" and "Northanger Abbey," by WGBH Boston. Both BBC releases come in handsome cardboard cases made to resemble hardcover books. "Sense & Sensibility" is a two-disc set. The first disc contains the miniseries in its three original parts (PBS aired the three-hour production in two 90-minute installments), a commentary track and an interview. The second disc is devoted to another offering in "The Complete Jane Austen": the original drama "Miss Austen Regrets."
"Sense" is presented in 16x9 enhanced widescreen and Dolby Digital stereo. The lavish, brand-new 35mm production naturally looks perfect in the transfer to disc. The colors are pure and natural, especially the green hills surrounding the Dashwoods' seaside home and the amber glow of the candle-lit nighttime interiors. You could calibrate your monitor's color bars by the clear blue eyes and natural red lips of Hattie Morahan (Elinor).
After inserting the disc, you'll get a preview for the acclaimed BBC version of Dickens' "Bleak House," starring Gillian Anderson. You can't fast-forward through it but you can "next" it to get to the full-motion main menu for "Sense"; the menu offers Play All, Episode Selection, Special Features and Subtitles On/Off. Click on an episode and you get six scene selections, each illustrated with a still frame. At the end of each episode, there is a preview of the next, and at the start of each episode, a summary of the previous.
Besides a photo gallery, the special features include the above-mentioned 20-minute interview with producer Anne Pivcevic and writer Andrew Davies, who point out some of the ways they avoided simply redoing the 1995 Ang Lee film. Davies also discusses scenes that are new to this production, such as the mysterious pre-credit sequence and a sword duel between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby that's mentioned in passing in the novel.
There's also a jovial group running commentary with Pivcevic, director John Alexander and stars Hattie Morahan and Dan Stevens. Alexander reveals that due to technical problems, some scenes had to be post-dubbed in the studio. Morahan says, "Occasionally it's quite nice because you can make improvements." During the scene in which Fanny Dashwood describes her brother Edward Ferrars, Morahan jokes, in decidedly un-Austen-like language, "Great, he's introduced and made to seem such an asshole."
Charity Wakefield and Dominic Cooper join the chat at the start of the second episode. "This was an embarrassing day," Cooper remarks about a dance sequence. There's also a discussion about Martin Phipps' swelling, romantic score. Some would complain it's not Austen-appropriate, says director Alexander, but Dan Stevens defends it nicely: "It's like the music you imagine going round Marianne's head."
Miss Austen Regrets
At least as valuable as the feature program in this two-disc set is the main bonus, which takes up Disc 2: "Miss Austen Regrets," a new feature-length biographical drama set in the final years of Austen's life. It is up to the fine level of any of the new Austen productions, a beautifully filmed drama drawn from Austen's surviving letters to her older sister, Cassandra, as well as, I assume, the memoir of James Edward Austen-Leigh, Jane's nephew who late in his life gave us the only account of the author's life by someone who knew her.
Olivia Williams of "The Sixth Sense" and "Rushmore" plays 40-year-old Austen, living with her mother (Phyllida Law) and her beloved older sister, Cassandra (Greta Scacchi), and running out of marital possibilities. The "regrets" part is revealed in an opening scene set about a decade earlier in which Jane accepts a marriage proposal but then has second thoughts.
Back in the present (c. 1816), Jane is a local celebrity, noted for "Sense and Sensibility," "Pride and Prejudice" and "Mansfield Park." But she is nearly penniless and in search of a new publisher who will do her right by her popular books. She is finishing up "Emma," and the story of her life at this point mirrors much of the plot of that novel, as well as her next, final one, "Persuasion." There's her lovesick young niece Fanny (Imogen Poots) who is persuaded by a meddling Jane that the young man she loves is something of a ninny. Jane meets a handsome young doctor who seems enamored of her, but one look at Fanny and his attention strays, much to Jane's chagrin. As Jane's health begins to fail, Cassandra poignantly reveals the part she played in preventing Jane's earlier happiness. Unlike Austen's books, there's no happy ending here.
The second disc's extra is a radio play, "Remembering Jane Austen," which is a fine narration but there's nothing to look at except the menu screen.
While many Jane Austen fans will be satisfied with rewatching Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's 1995 "Sense and Sensibility," this new miniseries version from the BBC is a fine piece of work. While similar to the film in tone and even the staging of certain scenes, it does offer joys all of its own, chiefly in the lead performance of Hattie Morahan. She and Charity Wakefield superbly bring out the closeness of the rather dissimilar Dashwood sisters Elinor and Marianne as they go about finding love, while the other major players, including David Morrissey, lend richness to the proceedings. There's a fine cast commentary, but the big bonus is the original drama "Miss Austen Regrets," starring Olivia Williams as the author. (It's virtually hidden, mentioned only in a little box on the back cover). All in all, a major DVD release.