I was quite excited when the news hit the blogosphere that the elusive 1971 mini-series of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility was being resurrected from the vaults and reissued by the BBC. It originally aired in the UK, but had never jumped the pond until this re-issue. Now, I think I know why.
If you step back in time with me to the early days of the BBC and Masterpiece Theater television adaptations of literary classics and biographies you might recall such gems as The Six Wives of Henry VIII , Poldark or I Claudius. The scripts and actors were superior, but by today’s standards of movie making they appear a bit stage-playish and stilted. They are after all close to forty years old. If you can get past the slower pacing, video film recording quality and classically trained actors playing to the back row of a theater, they are well worth your entertainment time. This adaptation of Sense and Sensibility is from the same era, and suffers from some of the same stiffness and sluggish pacing. However, these faults could easily have been overlooked if the script had not been so severely altered from the original masterpiece. The plot line of Austen’s story remains, but unfortunately very, very little of her unique language is included. Newer adaptations by Emma Thompson in 1995 and Andrew Davies in 2008 do include Austen’s words, or a variation of them, and we have come to expect them.
Robin Ellis as Edward Ferrars and Joann David as Elinor Dashwood
Notwithstanding my frustrations with the dialogue, I did appreciate some of the performances, and laughed heartily over the costumes and hair styles. Here are some of the highlights:
Joanna David as Elinor Dashwood totally saved this production for me. Her solid and stoic Elinor is never overplayed, but totally understated and stealthily effective. Like Austen’s heroine she is a rock, an island of sanity in a social sphere populated with reprehensible characters used as a morality exercise to compare what should be proper behavior in the Georgian era and what is not. Besides being absolutely stunningly beautiful, her timing and delivery are spot on. It is easy for a reader or an audience to resent Elinor for pulling in the reigns of her family and her own heart, but I never once doubted Ms David’s characters choices. Bravo!
Patricia Routledge as Mrs. Jennings may be my favorite film interpretation of the character so far. In this instance playing to the back row really works as her character is way over-the-top and exaggerated just as Austen intended. Aptly, Routledge’s clothes are as outlandish as her personality; she waves her arms about like a conductor of a comic opera and spouts her errant romantic deductions and matchmaking schemes with her unmistakably unique sign-song voice with aplomb. Her performance alone is well worth the 3 hours of blunders.
Robin Ellis as Edward Ferrars. This Edward has a bouffant hairdo and stutters through his lines. This character trait is not in Austen’s novel (that I can remember) and may have been added as an emphasis to show that he was truly not suited for making speaches in Parliment, the profession that his mother aspires for him. We also saw slight stuttering by Hugh Grant in the 1995 production. Is this a trend? Unfortunately, I never felt any chemistry between this Edward and Elinor which made their romance rather flat. This was a big disappointment, since the proposal scene in both the 1995 and 2008 adaptations actually were the highlight of the films for me and amazingly an improvement on the original novel. Honestly, I can’t think of anything positive to say about this Edward beyond the fact that he was an eligible bachelor and he married above himself.
Ciaran Madden as Marianne Dashwood. Oh my! This is a love hate reaction to this interpretation of Austen’s most dramatic of heroines. This Marianne was a frenzied mess, down right selfish and does not care one fig about her family. She whines a lot, throws away anyone else’s opinions like dead flowers and comes off like a spoiled brat. When she finds Willoughby at the Ball in London with a new paramour she is a mad woman, yelling and flailing about. It reminded me of the mad scene in Donizetti’s tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Hard to know if this was the director’s choice of character interpretation or the actress’. Either way they missed the point and she out weighed the balance of the sense vs. sensibility dichotomy of the two sisters. Marianne’s descent into despair is engaging, in a “sick and wicked” sort of way, and is hard to not watch with some amazement, but you are duly forewarned.
Marianne di Lammermoor’s mad scene!
The costumes and hair: pictures can say so much more than I, so take a gander. Beyond the non-period bouffant hairdos for both women and men, the matching pelisses for Elinor and Marianne really made me roar with laughter.
Chartreuse and pink twin pelisses!
The hair Louisa!
Clive Francis as Mr. Willoughby. Swoonable?
Milton Johns as John Dashwood, truly a weasel!
Kay Gallie as Fanny Dashwood, skinflint!
Richard Owens as Col. Brandon, unrequited until the end!
Isabel Dean as Mrs Dashwood with Patricia Routledge as Mrs Jennings
If I seem a bit cynical about this production, please take it with a grain of salt. Firstly, I had heard tale of its charms for decades. Overall it is amusing in an historical perspective sort of way, but it was not what I was expecting and did not do justice to Austen’s plot or characters. Secondly, I am glad that it is now available and that I have experienced it. My curiosity duly quenched, I can now return it to NetFlix after three months of struggling through it in small doses. In conclusion, this Sense and Sensibility does show us how far historical drama has evolved in forty years, but sadly reminds us how far we have to go in perfecting interpretations of Austen’s prose on screen.
3 out of 5 Regency Stars
Sense and Sensibility (1971)
Directed by David Giles
Screenplay by Denis Constanduros
Distributed by BBC Warner, (2009)
DVD, 178 minutes
Images courtesy © BBC Warner 2009