Sense and Sensibility (1971) – Movie Review

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:

The Yeas

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.

The Nays

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!

Image from Sense and Sensibility 1971: Richard Owens as Col. BrandonImage © BBC Warner 2009

Richard Owens as Col. Brandon, unrequited until the end!

Image from Sense and Sensibility 1971: Isabel Dean as Mrs. Dashwood and Patricia Routledge as Mrs. Jennings © BBC Warner 2009

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
ASIN: B002DY9KR0

Images courtesy © BBC Warner 2009

14 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility (1971) – Movie Review

  1. … “the slower pacing, video film recording quality and classically trained actors playing to the back row of a theater” … I made the effort to get past all that and watched the 6-part BBC Emma (1972) . But what an effort! I was so glad I had got hold of it and I could compare it to the ITV 1996 Emma and to the Paltrow/ Northam movie . Anyhow, I actually didn’t like it. It made me laugh or yawn.
    Here’s my post ( it was part of my Everything Austen Challenge)
    http://flyhigh-by-learnonline.blogspot.com/2009/08/waiting-for-new-emma-or-ambiguous.html
    I don’t think I’ll watch this version of S&S, Laurel Ann. I think I may re-watch the two newest adaptations, instead, which I really like.
    ( I also compared them for the EAC)
    Cheers! And, BTW, Best wishes for A SPLENDID 2010!

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  2. With all it’s ~ charms ~ I’ll definitely watch it. The hair is gorgeous yet not true to period for sure but I’ll probably still be a fan of it. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. I have been going back and forth on whether I want to watch these older adaptations. So I do thank you for the review–and for including all the pictures! It’s good to have all the pros and cons before you! I did LOVE the P&P from 1980. (My review here.) Have you seen that one?

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    • Hi Becky – oh YES, I have seen the 1980 P&P. It was my introduction to Austen adaptations and I still love it. Elizabth Garvie as Lizzie Bennet still reigns supreme with me as the best interpretation. I will further add that I do like David Rintoul’s Mr. Darcy – though I know that many others do not. He played it as Jane wrote it. I like Colin Firth’s Mr. D also, but not sure that Austen would.

      Happy New Year, LA

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  4. This is so funny — I literally just returned this adaptation today, and had much of the same feelings as you. I even looked through the blog yesterday, seeing if you had reviewed it yet. I guess not!

    What I found hilariously ridiculous is how Fanny’s carrying on and — if you may pardon the pun — fanning about when she finds out that Lucy Steele and Edward are engaged.

    And why is it that this adaptation and the other early BBC adaptation completely ignore Margaret’s existence? The movie was three hours long, it’s not as if they didn’t have any place to put her!

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    • Hi Blarneygirl – so great to see your comments again. Don’t want to discourage you from viewing this version, just forewarn you that it is not up to snuff compared with recent versions. There are some excellent permformances, and it is Jane Austen no matter what has been done to it, so take the risk. In your eyes, I might be completely off base, which I have been known to be frequently. Have a great new year.

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  5. As soon as I found out S&S (1971) was available, I couldn’t resist buying it, if only for abit of BBC nostalgia (being a fan of the JA’s classic ‘Ones’ or to see Joanna David or maybe Patricia Routlege.
    I enjoy all four S&S adaptations. LA, I agree with nearly all your interesting review…good point on the script not retaining much of JA’s own words. ( I think script for S&S 1981 better, with more JA dialogue.)
    I really enjoyed Joanna as kindly, sensible Elinor. However, Ciarian Maden gave the weakest portrayal of Marianne- she deserved a SUTH !
    Loved Patricia Routlege as Mrs Jennings; a delightful contrast for sour Mrs Ferras.
    I believe this S&S is sometimes reffered to as ‘Poldark S&S’. lol !
    Admittedly, I had a hard time seeing Robin Ellis as Edward Ferras; but if I had Fanny D. for my sister, I’d stutter too !
    I found this Lucy Steele a real toughie; too ill-mannered to believe shy guy Edward could ever like her. I also didn’t find Clive Francis”s Willoughby a believable villian.
    Maybe he and Robin Ellis ought to have switched roles in S&S ? ;)
    Thanks for S&S 1971 photos; your Mrs Jennings photos really show her joviality. Yeah, and many of the costumes were hilarious !
    Ooh, and Happy New Year !

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  6. [“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.”]

    It’ll never happen. No screenwriter is going to use the dialogue of a famous novel verbatim. It just won’t work. Not even a play would use the exact same dialogue in a stage adaptation of any novel. There are some aspects of any novel – whether it is the plot, characterization or dialogue – that simply DO NOT translate well to the screen or the stage.

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    • Hi Lady Lavinia, I must agree that a novel can never be adapted word for word. Movies are a different medium. There are Austen adaptations that are more successful than others. The 1995 Persuasion is a great example in my opinion.

      Thanks for your insights. Laurel Ann

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  7. Pingback: Sense and Sensibility 1981 – A Review « Austenprose – A Jane Austen Blog

  8. Great review, I agree with you completely, but this version had me chuckling all the way through so I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy it. I loved Sir John’s accent that seemed to come and go and which no one else shared, Patricia Routledge is wonderful and Marianne makes me cringe every time.

    It’s so different from the 70’s versions of Emma and Persuasion, which I still think are the best adaptations of those novels, and the 1980 P&P which will always be my favourite I think.

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