Sense and Sensibility

HEARTS AND MINDS

Main Cast: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet

Director: Ang Lee

Today was the day that we filmed my first big ballroom number for Dancing with the Stars. The producer, Mr. Poptarts or Hopkiss or whatever it is, had Derek and I scheduled for a boring little quickstep to an instrumental version of some song called Shake It Off by some teenybopper named Taylor Swallow. Unfortunately, the dress they have chosen for me to wear, which seems to be a mound of hideous aubergine tulle, makes me look like some sort of demented eggplant and the skirt and train are so long, that my legs are barely visible. I suppose the producers want us to start with something slow and dreary early in the season and build up to something more vibrant, but millions of fans are tuning in to see me unleash hundreds of thousands of watts of star power on television screens all over America and this is just not going to do it. I therefore decided I would have to add a few refinements of my own.

I was fortunate enough to meet a darling little technical genius, Mr. Ben who can run all sorts of lights and sound effects through his handy little laptop computer. All he has to do is plug into the system and he can make the most marvelous things happen. I added him to my entourage for the taping this afternoon and had him casually plug himself into the control panel just before we filmed my number. Derek and I were introduced to the studio audience, came forward and began our rehearsed routine to polite applause. However, at the end, instead of exiting the stage, I signaled Mr. Ben and unleashed my little surprise. The sound system rocketed to life with the Lena Lamont Singers rendition of If My Friends Could See Me Now in eight part harmony, the lights began to strobe, I ripped away the ridiculous purple skirts to reveal a lovely set of red and gold tap shorts in a harlequin pattern (left over from Rigoletto) and I launched into an amazing acrobatic solo tap number across the stage. I was soon joined by Mrs. Tuttle’s Tapping Tots (whom I had flown in from Salina, Utah just for the occasion) and we made an incredible tap line off the stage, down the aisle and burst out through the studio doors.

Now that I have shown them how a true star makes an entrance and an exit, there was no need for me to wait around so I had the car take me to Chateau Maine. We nearly ran over poor Vera Charles in the parking lot; she was just arriving for her number but she’ll have a hard time topping my tour de force given the racket I heard bubbling out of the studio as I left. Normy met me with a cocktail and a plate of chateaubriand (I always develop a healthy appetite after tapping) and we settled in the home theater determined to find a story of love, life and the triumph of the fair sex.

What I found amongst my Netflix choices was the 1995 film version of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility written by and starring Emma Thompson. I had not seen it in nearly twenty years so settled down to enjoy myself in a simpler time and place where everyone was elegant but where there is a distinct lack of tap dancing and lives are the poorer for it. The film was a notable success for Ms. Thompson, winning her an Oscar for the screenplay and introducing her to actor Greg Wise, who was later to become her husband.

Sense and Sensibility is the story of the Dashwood family. As the film opens, the patriarch (Tom Wilkinson) is dying. Under the laws of entail, the ancestral home, Norland Park, passes to his son by his first wife (James Fleet) and his odious wife (Harriet Walter) dispossessing his current wife (Gemma Jones) and his two adult daughters Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet) along with their little sister Margaret (Emilie Francois). During the process of downsizing, Elinor meets the dashing Edward (Hugh Grant), brother of her odious sister-in-law and an attachment forms. Unfortunately, he has commitments elsewhere and off the ladies go to live at Barton Cottage in Devonshire near their mother’s fussy little cousin (Robert Hardy) and his mother in law (Elizabeth Spriggs). As the eligible young ladies are introduced to the eligible gentlemen of the county, romantic complications ensue as the headstrong Marianne falls for the dashing suitor (Greg Wise) over the painfully stolid but honest suitor (Alan Rickman). More romantic complications ensue until all comes right in the end.

The title is a philosophical one, referring to the contrasting temperaments of the two sisters. Sense is the placid Elinor, ruled by her head, always following the rules and choking down her disappointments when those social rules don’t lead her to personal fulfillment . Sensibility is the tempestuous Marianne, ruled by emotion and the feelings of the moment, seeking through experience to unlock grand passions. Her disappointments hit her so hard they are nearly her undoing. Austen is trying to make points that both intellect and emotion, in balance together, can make for the most satisfying life and Thompson, in her well wrought screenplay, helps the viewer understand this message without bludgeoning them with overwrought exposition or pretentious symbolism.

The film is helped incredibly by its director, Ang Lee. Mr. Lee is not an obvious choice to direct a British comedy of manners of the Regency period but he guides scenes and performances with a sure hand. If one looks back on his body of work over the years, one of his favorite subjects is the delicate interconnected bonds of friends and family and the subtle tensions that are created when people who should be the most loving and supportive to each other are in conflict. Such themes resonate through films as disparate as The Wedding Banquet, The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain. Mr. Lee is smart enough to know that costumes and sets and period are merely trappings and that essential human truths are universal throughout all societies and times.

Regency England is lovingly recreated in the work of production designer Luciana Arrighi, costume designers Jenny Bevan and John Bright, all brought to life in the vivid cinematography of Michael Coulter. Much of the film was made on location in various stately country homes and great care has been taken to make them look lived in and loved, not museum show places. The costumes look like real clothes that might have actually been worn with the occasional stain or neat darn.

Performances across the board are excellent with even minor characters filled with the cream of British acting talent (a pre-House Hugh Laurie, for instance steals scenes with arched eyebrows and minimal dialogue). Emma Thompson, one of our finest actresses, navigates the less showy role of Elinor with aplomb. One could argue she is ten years too old for the part but she’s good enough to make you forget it. Kate Winslet is nearly her equal. The real delights, however, are the great character actors in the smaller parts, especially Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs who make the most of their silly wigs, odd statures and a passel of yapping dogs.

Sense and Sensibility is definitely one to catch, a lovely romance about adults for adults all wrapped up in a confection of empire waists, Hepplewhite furniture and the occasional periwig. Look for it on Netflix streaming.

Deathbed promises. Large atlas. Carriage journeys. Gratuitous hothouse flowers. Mob caps. Perilous rainstorms. Gratuitous snotty heiress. Parlor catfight. Thrown coins.

To learn more about Mrs Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction and check out her entire back catalog.

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