Prestige Literary Adaptations and Costume Dramas are not interchangeable terms, although we often associate one with the other. I think most people made this equivalency in the early nineties, when there was a sudden spike in the audience’s demand for elegant movies that were adaptations of British literary works in period settings. Thanks to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s embrace of the genre by giving its most successful movies tons of Oscar nominations, audiences were left with the impression that this type of movie should always look like either a Kenneth Branagh or a Merchant-Ivory film. And while both of those style have their merits and produced worthy films, the genre might have reached its decade peak with neither style, but with a movie that borrowed from both.
Sense and Sensibility starts with the wonderful Emma Thompson. I’m not referring to the plot of the movie, but to the fact that Thompson decided to adapt Jane Austen’s 1811 novel into a movie, writing herself a pretty meaty part and winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process. Thompson, of course, had spent the earlier part of the decade working with both of the filmmaker teams I mentioned above. She won her Lead Actress Oscar by appearing in the Merchant-Ivory-produced Howards End, and she, of course, was married and starred int he first four films directed by Kenneth Branagh. When it came to bringing her own Literary Adaptation to the screen, she borrowed from both phases of her experience. She kept the acute emphasis on visual formalism and staging from the Merchant-Ivory team by keeping some of their key collaborators (Luciana Arrighi as Production Designer, and Jenny Beavan as Costume Designer), but at the same time, she embraced the vibrancy and modernity of Branagh’s movies by… well, by doing the thing herself, since looking back on the director’s career one can see that Thompson tends to be the most modern and vibrant element of his movies.
However, one must not see Sense and Sensibility solely as Thompson’s triumph, since one of her great choices was to hire Taiwanese director Ang Lee, who had only made contemporary family dramas up to that point, to helm the project. This was Lee’s first movie entirely in English, and hist first period movie, but he ended up being exactly what the movie needed. Thompson’s script seems to bring the wit and the life to the movie, being the blueprint that resulted in so many good performances by the movie’s spirited cast. Lee’s direction, on the other hand, provides the frame that holds the whole enterprise together by providing room for the “modern” writing and acting while keeping an eye on remembering that the movie’s focus is on two women who learn about the limitations of love and duty. The result, and the reason why Sense and Sensibility endures as one of the finest Prestige Literary Adaptations the genre has to offer, is that the movie is much less about the superficial elements of the story (like sticking to every plot development and having lavishly authentic sets and costumes), and more on the what is “true” about it. This is a story about characters that feel like real humans, and not like the museum pieces that populate so many costume dramas.
This also has to do with the fact that Lee and Thompson are adapting one of the most energetic novelists of the English language. Austen’s story begins with the news that, due to British inheritance law, the Dashwood family -consisting of a mother and three daughters- has been left without a penny. In order to “survive” (in the British society sense of the word), the two elder Dashwood sisters must try and marry as soon as possible. Oldest and most rational sister Elinor (Thompson) has the problem of falling in love with Edward Farrars (Hugh Grant) a man who by any logical measure would be smart to avoid marrying her (for he will surely lose his economic condition if he did). Meanwhile, the young and passionate Marianne (Kate Winslet) is a romantic who would much rather be engaged to the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise) than to the stiff and boring Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), never mind the fact that the latter provides the much more practical choice.
As you can see, the two sisters represent the “Sense” and “Sensibility” of the title. They are the ones who carry the movie, and the actresses playing them do an amazing of it. All the performances, actually, are quite outstanding across the board, although I am partial to Winslet’s turn as Marianne, if nothing else, because the character allows the actress to show a natural sense of freedom that is lacking in her most recent work, and that I would love to see her return to in the future. And while we’re on the topic, I would completely agree that “natural sense of freedom” is precisely how I would describe most of Sense and Sensibility’s virtues. Costume Dramas might be often treated as a “higher” genre than your typical action or horror movie, but it doesn’t mean that the average product is automatically any better. More often than not these period pieces rely on their own pretty look and hard-felt performances to carry the whole thing forward, but without the guidance of a team like the one behind Sense and Sensibility, and without the recognition that the name costume drama doesn’t mean the costume is more important than the human, these productions become as disposable as the next generic Hollywood blockbuster.
If there is any argument I can make against Sense and Sensibility is that it conforms with being mightily well-made movie and doesn’t have the ambition to transcend in the medium or redefine cinema. It’s a minor complaint considering most movies don’t even clear the bar of being actually good films. What Sense and Sensibility does do, is provide a sort of proof that there are no inherent limitations to its genre, that the right group of artists can make a familiar costume drama feel as essential as any other piece of cinema. Movies as alive and excited to exist as this one are not only most agreeable, but are the ones that earn their place as cinema.