Sense and Sensibility
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker
Sense and Sensibility beautifully explores the challenge of balancing reason and emotion in our personal relationships.
Reason and emotion can be powerful allies in our trek through life, but too much devotion to one or the other can distort our lives and leave us miserable. The 1995 film Sense and Sensibility beautifully explores the challenge of balancing the two in our personal relationships.
When Mr. Dashwood dies unexpectedly, he leaves his wife and three daughters practically destitute. The law compels that the estate go to his son, by an earlier marriage. With only 500 pounds of support a year, the four women are forced to accept the kindness of a distant cousin and move into an abandoned cottage. With so few options afforded women at the time, marriage seems the only means of stability or improvement. Miss Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) and her younger sister, Marianne (Kate Winslet), soon meet suitable bachelors, but getting to the wedding ceremony with their chosen won’t be as easy.
Emma Thompson brilliantly adapted the screenplay from the original novel by Jane Austen. First, she makes modern viewers identify strongly with the plight of her characters and deftly maneuvers us through joy and despair. Along the way, she peels away layer after layer of character and backstory that leads us in ever-unexpected emotional directions. Additionally, Sense doesn’t take itself too seriously and has enough enjoyable humor to balance the more emotional moments. For her achievement, Thompson earned a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Her companion storyteller, Ang Lee, is an accomplished director (Eat Drink Man Woman, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in his own right. He takes the strong foundation of Thompson’s screenplay and adds layers of sophistication. His decisions with regards to the acting, the design, and the music are perfect. He takes what can sometimes be oppressive subject matter and infuses it with life and interest. Lee relies on his superb ensemble cast, headed by Emma Thompson herself, by letting the actors take a scene and refraining from over-working the material. Sense and Sensibility was nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture, but this “epic of the heart” lost out to a slightly more external epic, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
The film is so aptly named that there doesn’t appear to be any subtlety to the theme: All human interaction is motivated by either reason or emotion. But, that’s not the theme-it’s just a truthful statement. Instead, the theme is closer to: the proper balance of reason and emotion lead to happiness in human relationships, especially in romance.
After Marianne sprains her ankle in the rain, she meets the stunning John Willoughby (Greg Wise), who literally sweeps her off her feet. Upon returning to the cottage, the following ensues:
Elinor: Marianne, you must change or you will catch a cold.
Marianne: What care I for colds when there is such a man.
Elinor: You will care very much when your nose swells up.
Marianne: You are right. Help me, Elinor.
This humorous scene illustrates the opposite nature of the two sisters. Marianne is the hot-headed romantic and Elinor the calm pragmatist. Marianne reflects the romantic ideal and the “leap-before-you-look” attitude of youth, while the older Elinor seems wiser to the injustices of the world.
Almost all the characters, whether major or minor, illustrate imbalance in sense and sensibility towards one another. Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) is the paragon of propriety and reason who feels that she must wait for permission before speaking to her own suffering daughter. Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs), the outspoken relative, is the polar opposite-a meddlesome busybody who acts the matchmaker to everyone she meets with no sense whatsoever, or more accurately, no sense of tact.
When Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), arrives at the Dashwood cottage, Elinor is immediately attracted to his calm, but compassionate demeanor. Marianne confronts her about her true feelings towards him:
Elinor: I do not attempt to deny, that I think very highly of him-that I greatly esteem-that I like him.
Marianne: Esteem him! Like him! Cold hearted Elinor! Oh! Worse than cold hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.
To Marianne, it is obvious that “something is lacking” in Edward’s behavior. On the other hand, her paragon, Willoughby, is given to making faces, spinning her around, and other childish, but endearing, behavior. Later we find that there is good reason for Edward’s reticence, related to his impulsiveness as a youth. And Willoughby also has his share of skeletons in the closet. We won’t reveal it here, but it is a satisfying twist to see how each man handles these revelations and which man is the better for it.
Even the Dashwood’s loyal friend, Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), is a victim of the hard blows of reason crushing emotion. He seeks to protect Marianne from the same fate, but at the same time respects her individual choices (even though he desperately wants her hand in marriage for himself).
Never is the balance between sense and sensibility more important than when people are finding their mates, whether it be the turn of the nineteenth century or the turn of the twenty-first. At one of the climactic moments, Elinor finally reveals how she really feels. In turn, Marianne suffers a discouraging loss, but the film ends hopefully as she also learns to balance her heart with her head.
Sense with some sensibility, or sensibility with some sense, that’s all we can really hope for. It is refreshing to find an affirming film that appeals on so many levels.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.