I just finished watching the BBC's Sense and Sensibility on YouTube. Somebody posted all three segments in seven parts each. And while this might seem a little bit choppy, to a mother of three in a household of boys, six-eight minute segments were just perfect. I have watched bits here and there over the last several days.
There is so much fodder for comparison here! And, well, literary types love this sort of thing so I can't resist doing it. If you would like to read a shorter, funnier review, check out this one from last week, which is the reason I decided to give it a go in the first place. (I had kind of forgotten about the MT series this spring: Mansfield Park was so-so, I heard bad reviews of Miss Austen Regrets, and I've got Pride and Prejudice on DVD and can have my Darcy-fix any time I want.)
I have to preface any critique by saying that I think a Emma Thompson's screenplay for this same story is brilliant and that Ang Lee's directing is just fantastic. That particular version of Sense and Sensibility is, I think, one of the finest films of the 1990's. So naturally, I approached this new version very skeptically. However, I think that the BBC version has merits that Thompson and Lee overlooked, though I still think the old one is superior (better performances) and truer to Austen's original intent.
Andrew Davies, screenplaywright for THE version of Pride and Prejudice, is the writer for this new S & S. He had a tough act to follow, but he was still able to add some new insights to this story. Here are the things that I loved:
1) Mrs. Dashwood is much younger than the widow in Thompson's screenplay. This makes very good sense; after all, Margret is supposed to be, what, 10? I think to put Elinor's mother in her mid-forties is very appropriate. She is also much more tragic. She doesn't easily accept her new lot; I think when she married her much older husband she was probably a lot like her daughters: very genteel, but with a modest fortune. Without having a very upper-class background, she would never have been an appropriate wife for the late Mr. Dashwood, and nobody ever makes suggestion that she was unworthy to be his wife. She has raised daughters with excellent manners and refined tastes. The expression on her face when they come to their windswept cottage on the coast is great acting: like she's just been hit over the head with a ton of bricks by the life they've given up. Elinor is forcefully, practically, optimistic and Marianne is poetic and romantic, but their mother is devastated.
"Elinor, can we really live like this?" Elinor replies, "Once a fire is lit, it should be quite cheerful." And then mother's low voice, "But who is going to light the fire?" (I'll save Elinor's brilliantly characteristic reply. Better yet, watch the clip.) Even at the end of the story, when she willingly pounds bread with her daughter, she insists they be arranged as proper ladies in the parlor when Edward arrives, even though there is no expectation of any chance with him.
I did think her "If I had been mistress of Norland, my girls would never have been treated like this!" is a bit didactic. We get it, Mr. Davies, you didn't have to state it so bold or dramatically. Instead of making us feel sorry for Mrs. Dashwood, as we're probably meant to, it makes us think, "But you aren't! And if Willoughby would leave over such a thing, then do you really want him to marry your daughter?"
2) I'm not sure if it is directing or writing, but the candelight all the time was a nice touch, and it made so much more sense than a movie like Pride and Prejudice that is so delightfully light all the time that one would think England is perpetually sunny even at night! I had truthfully never picked up on this anachronsim before until I saw this version. At first I was annoyed, "Why is it dark all the time?" Well, this was before electric light. It WAS dark much of the time, and if it was a cloudy day . . . . you get the picture.
Someone on Youtube laughed about these ladies feeling like they would barely survive with a mere two servants, but think seriously about what it would be like to attempt to live without power. All of the things I can accomplish in a day are because of electricity. Without it, just putting food on the table and having clean clothing to wear becomes an all-consuming day-to-day task. These women were not used to working like that. The lighting in the movie helps to emphasize just how much more subsistence their lives became when they lost their fortune.
3) Opening with the seduction scene was shocking and, well, brilliant. I will leave you to read Nem's review to hear her opinions on this.
4) Willoughby's character is written totally differently in this screenplay than the other. In Thompson's version, you have this gorgeous actor whom you can almost forgive for being carried away with his passion. He is not a weasel, just larger than life. He wanted to marry Marianne, but he just couldn't, poor guy. You never have, by his own admission, any proof that his attentions to Marianne were less than honorable. Even Colonel Brandon acknowledges this to Elinor. In the Davies version, on the other hand, Mr. Willoughby is set up to be a complete scoundrel before you even seen a single main character. Before our story even begins, his depravity has set a chain of events in motion that cannot be undone.
He is weasly and charming from the beginning. He isn't nearly as handsome as Thompson's Willoughby and this seems to make his manner more false--like he is trying extra hard to be pleasing, that his words and actions are more calculated. I never wanted this Marianne to be with this Willoughby. In Thompson's version, I wanted Willoughby to turn his life around and do the right thing.
Davies also made a brilliant move by including the scene when Willougby, tortured and unhappy (great!) comes to Cleveland to seek and audience with Elinor. The book even left me with the impression that our charming hero is hoping that Marianne knows he came: I think he hasn't given up hope that she might be his mistress. Elinor, for all her gentility, proves that quiet dignity doesn't have to be weakness in her rebuff. I thought it was a great addition, rather than having Colonel Brandon deliver the whole story.
5) The introduction of Anne, the older Steele sister, was one of my favorite parts. This is the classic, stock, comic-relief character always found in the background in Austen novels. She is exactly like the book, and the casting of a girl with such horsey teeth really completes the picture for me. This new Lucy, I think, is well-written. Much more conniving, or at least played that way, than Thompson's Lucy. Unfortunately, the scene where Anne Steele really shines is actually a scene I don't like. But I haven't gotten to my dislikes quite yet.
6) I did not like all of Davies' non-book scenes, but he is very good at this. It is like he has the finger on the pulse of what women want even more than on Austenian intention and culture. (Think, Colin Firth fencing, getting out of the tub, swimming in his pond and meeting Elizabeth soaking wet--that is ALL Davies, not Austen). One of these was of the two sisters under the covers: Marianne saying, "I keep thinking about that girl and her baby. What do men want from us? Do they even see us as people, or just play things?" Good questions. Austen, however, is brilliant enough that she is able to raise her issues without such bald statement. Thompson's screenplay does some of this kind of thing, too. Like when she is horseback riding with Edward and talking about his profession: "Except you will inherit your fortune. We can't even earn ours," or to Margaret's question about why they can't stay at Norland, "Because fortunes pass from father to son, dearest, not father to daughter; it is the law."
7) Brandon tells Elinor that the woman he first fell in love with was given in marriage to his brother. This, I believe, is true to Austen's original, which makes his story really all that much more sad. Again, this is Austen's subtle way of bringing up the unfairnesses in her society: why was Brandon denied his first true love? Only because he was a second son and not the eldest. In Thompson's version, it is Sir Middleton's mother-in-law that first brings this out: we are never certain if she has the story right or if it is just gossip, which fits better with her character. In the book, this well-meaning busy-body even calls the forsaken orphan Brandon's love-child, a claim he later refutes. A further level of intrigue that neither screen play touches.
8) I love the horrible, fat red-headed child of Fanny and John's who never says a word. Enough said.
All in all, this new version is very good. However, there are some things that I didn't like, though I hope my pointing them out doesn't affect your viewing pleasure at all.
1) With the exception of Elinor, who I did think was as good as (and younger than) Emma Thompson, The acting was inferior. But what can be done? Ang Lee's film reads like a Who's Who of British actors. Poor Marianne! I would not want to follow Kate Winslet into any role. Though I'd always thought Alan Rickman (Sheriff of Nottingham, Severus Snape) to be a bit of an odd choice for Colonel Brandon, he is very good from his first minutes on screen ("The air smells of spices.") Rickman is intense, serious, tragic and devoted without being so wooden or lurky like this new guy. The new guy did, however, grow on me when I realized that he reminded me so much of Liam Neeson.
2) Though well in tune with female romantic sensibilities, I don't think Davies has quite as good an ear for natural sounding dialogue between women as Thompson. Elinor's revelation, Marianne's change of heart, the reason she became ill, her recovery after Willoughby's initial departure, etc. all of these scenes play better in Thompson's version. (Think: Elinor calmly sipping her tea while Margret slams doors, and her mother and sister cry in their rooms. Perfect.)
3) Just as I liked some of Davies' liberties with the original, there are others I didn't like. The fencing, though very sexy, was fairly ridiculous and possibly another anachronism. I've read that dueling, even in the early 1800's, was mostly out of fashion simply because it was illegal. Also, if it had been an actual duel (hm . . .hm . . . .usually done with pistols by the 1820's), Willoughby would have been killed. It would have been considered cowardly for Brandon to challenge and then leave him alive. Also, its placement in the story is a bit strange. The duel should have taken place right when Mr. Willoughby arrived in London--immediately after the discovery of his indiscretion. Instead, the screenplay implies it takes several weeks later, as Marianne is reading her letter of rejection from the cad himself. The director inserts the duel there implying that Brandon is fighting for Marianne's dishonor as well as the poor orphaned girl.
5) The revelation that Lucy was engaged to Edward was initially funny, but then the scene played too long with Edward's arrival. The scene became stilted, awkward. In all fairness, this was a tough act to follow. One of Thompson's best scenes is that hideous actress who plays Fanny leaning in to Lucy saying, "I am the soul of discretion." Lucy confides and feathers fly everywhere while Fanny physcially attacks her. Hilarious. I also like finding out that Edward's refusal to disengage himself from Fanny happens off-screen. For all his understated character, he really is the hero of our story, and we don't want to see him openly avow that he wants to be married to Lucy.
4) Davies' characterizations of Sir Middleton and his mother-in-law are way off. Thompson makes them funny and good-natured. Davies makes them annoying and rude. Austen is better played witty than dark.
5) Which leads me to my last complaint. It was dark. At least darker than I expected. Ang Lee's film is beautiful, light, sunny. This Barton cottage might have been a better setting for Wuthering Heights. The rain and the wind was such a defining part of their new home that I had great difficulty ever feeling they settled in. I was cold the whole time I watched. Now, it is likely that this was the intention of the director, but the mood was opressive at times. I really don't like Austen played oppressively: it just doesn't sit right. (I know, I know, this seems like a contradiction to what I said about the lighting before. Live with it. But I'm not talking so much about lighting here as tone.)
Now, to the subject I'm sure everyone wants to talk about, but I've avoided almost entirely to this point: Edward Farris. This new Edward is adorable, charming, passionate and filled with integrity. Hugh Grant only scores 1/4 on this criteria, if this is the criteria we are looking at. This is a big "if."
The Youtube audience gushed, almost embarrassingly so, over our current Edward incarnation, fairly leaving Hugh Grant in the dust. But I have to maintain that Edward, as written by Thompson, directed by Lee and played by Grant is what Austen had in mind. He is shy, awkward, gawky and insecure. He didn't fall for Lucy because he is brave or passionate or even friendly toward the underdog. It was because he was idle and lacked confidence. He tells Elinor as much. Besides, Lucy is a manipulator. She trapped Edward as surely as she wrangled an invitation to Lady Middleton's for the express purpose of trying to bury Elinor. Falling in love with Elinor was more accidental than by design and he is never able to tell her why he can't move forward.
Elinor's Edward would NEVER have been so flirty about the banging of the rugs (another added scene): especially when he hadn't been properly introduced. Elinor's manner to him when he teases her about the rugs shows that she even thinks he is cheeky. In fact, in nearly every scene Edward is just MORE than I've always pictured him.
However, having said this (I have to; I'm a bit of purist when it comes to Austen, if you hadn't yet picked up on that), I think my favorite scene in the whole show is the first minute of this clip. The rain, Elinor's face under that shawl, Edward's frustration. Oh. It. Is. Good. I wanted Edward to 'fess up and crawl under Elinor's lovely yellow wrap and pour out his heart. In the book, as in this adaptation, Edward does come to Barton and is depressed and moody, though nobody can pinpoint the reason. The chopping wood bit where his gaurd is let down is consistent with his character during this portion of Austen's story.
So, while the purist in me is skeptical of this Edward, the romantic in me thinks he is wonderful. Who would look twice at Hugh Grant with this guy around? But maybe my review title refers to Edward Cullen . . . hmm. The world may never know.
Now, it has been said that brevity is the soul of wit. Again, refer to Nem's review (her whole blog for that matter) if you want wit. I will have to settle for thoroughness.