Making sense of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility

I am no big fan of Ang Lee. I have seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I have seen bits and pieces of The Hulk. And I can tell you that the man loves his melodrama with a capital M. He loves it so much that he goes way overboard toward self-important, cheesy, and intolerable. I’m talking about scenes like where Ziyi Zhang throws herself off a bridge to dramatically (and unnecessarily) sacrifice herself for her sins. I’m talking about the ultra-confusing scene at the end of The Hulk where the big green guy dispenses of his energy cloud dad by having him absorb all of his built-up angst. To me, both scenes seemed like over-wrought emo fantasies, the once where, rather than really owning up to consequences with nobility and courage, the main character takes the course of action that amounts to wallowing in self-pity.

(Note: I haven’t commented on Brokeback Mountain because I haven’t seen it yet. Partly, this is because of my reservations with Mr. Lee due to his direction in the last two movies. Also, partly because I understand it has a downer of an ending, and that’s not something that makes me want to drag my lazy butt to the video store to check it out.)

Mr. Sensitive

However, I will give him mad props for one movie: Sense and Sensibility.

At face value, it doesn’t make sense: the male, Taiwanese-born Ang Lee directing a movie adapted from a novel written by a highly regarded, early-19th Century female English author? You can’t get a more divergent set of perspectives, can you?

Yet somehow, it also made the most sense. I am an Asian immigrant. So is my girlfriend, who was watching the movie with me. As we watched the movie, we noticed how many similarities 19th Century English society had with our modern day Asian culture. Several aspects were close to what we’d seen among our Asian friends who were holding onto traditions from our home country. There was the circle of gossipy female relatives. There were the standoffish guys who would sort of tolerate the knitting circle, yet use codewords amongst themselves to makes sure that they protect their own against the gossip hounds. There are older nosy match-makers who tease but are all-around jovial. There were the high expectations set for the eldest daughter, and the rock-solid responsibility she would provide in keeping the family together. (Those versed in Asian cultures should know that pretty much every nationality has a special, revered honorific set aside for “eldest sister.”) And there are the men, who are expected to be honorable and chivarous. This is a world where talking about your emotions at all is frowned upon.

So, when Ang Lee directed Sense and Sensibility, I suspect that his cues were from personal experience.

The story follows the two eldest Dashwood sisters — Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (a pre-Titanic Kate Winslet). Their family (which also includes their mother and their youngest sister, Margaret) have to leave their home after their father passes away and the house is inherited by their step-brother and his wife, Fanny. They move to a rented cottage and are wooed by several men. Elinor is wooed by Fanny’s brother, the friendly and cheerful Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant). Marianne is courted by two men, the austere Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) and the dashing John Willoughby (Greg Wise).

One of the wonderful things that this movie does is that it paints no one as a total saint and no one as a total villain. Take Fanny Dashwood (Harriet Walker), for instance. She’s obviously supposed to be the story’s villian, since she convinces her husband to lower the women’s allowance, is the cause of them moving out of their home at the onset, and takes a disliking to the heriones. Yet, during the movie, we could understand where she was coming from. A nice manor house had been left to her husband in the will. If you were in her place and had inherited a nice piece of property, would you be overjoyed that the house was being occupied by your in-laws — who, let’s remember, didn’t actually have a clause in the will? Wouldn’t you have your own dreams about how the house should be remodeled, and how it would be perhaps a nice place to raise your own children or entertain your own blood relatives? You never fall in love with Fanny, but you could definitely see where she was coming from. She turned out to be more likable than Elinor’s romantic rival, Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs). While Fanny was upfront about her dislike of the Dashwood clan, Lucy was all sorts of devious.

Additionally, the blow of leaving the old manor house is cushioned substantially by the house that the women end up living in. It’s Barton Cottage, a place owned by their cousin Sir John Middleton. When they show us the place, I’m not sure if this movie’s supposed to be making us feel sorry for the ladies. I suspect, though, that Mr. Lee knew what he was doing: for all their complaining, these ladies are still pretty well off. The house is a veritable three-story mansion! It’s larger than anything I’ve ever lived in, anyway. And, in addition, they get several acres of unpopulated land and some nice waterfront! Cry me a river, sisters. Your place would be $2 million in today’s market, easily.

Another “villain” in the movie who we can somewhat identify with is the unfortunate Mr. Willoughby. The man saves Marianne from a rainstorm, then takes her on dates, picnics, and wild carriage rides. He even goes so far as to keep her lock of hair for himself. Yet Willoughby shows his jerkwad colors when he leaves for town suddenly, barely acknowledges Marianne at a London soree, then marries a much richer society lady. Makes you want to string the guy up, eh? Not necessarily. Subsequent events reveal that, while he did marry for the money, he was truly in love with Marianne and didn’t use her, as was initially feared. When we catch our last glimpse of Willoughby, we feel a touch of sadness that he felt he’d been forced into marriage, and we sort of hope that he’d had the courage to live a less luxurious life to be happy with Marianne. Once again, Ang Lee lets us sympathize with the villian. Though he could have done so, Willoughby does not come across as a total cad like George Wickham in the various adaptations of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

Frankly, the only problem I had with the story is the romance between Elinor and Edward. Edward seems like a sweet guy. He’s liked by the family and makes friends with the youngest Dashwood, Margaret. But throughout the entire film he seemed terribly wishy-washy. He stammers a lot, which isn’t so much charming as it is off-putting. He visits the house once, but then disappears for the entire film until the Dashwood girls see him in London. Between those times we learn that he had previously been engaged to Lucy (which at first seemed like a ruse, but turned out to be true!), and he never told Elinor anything of the matter. In the end, my girlfriend and I agreed that Elinor was much too good for that milksop.

In fact, we thought that the best of both worlds would have happened if Elinor had ended up with Colonel Brandon, played by the magnetic Alan Rickman. It doesn’t matter what movie he’s in, whether it’s Die Hard, Dogma, or the Harry Potter series; when Alan Rickman’s on the screen, you have no choice by to give him your utmost and undivided attention. Out of the three suitors in the film, he is the most loyal, the most emotionally strong, and the most caring. Yet he keeps a statuesque veneer as if to say that is what a man is supposed to be, and he expects no reward. In other words, Brandon is Austen’s prototype for the wildly popular Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice. And who doesn’t like Mr. Darcy? His only flaw (if you can call it that) is his inexplicable attraction to the younger Marianne. I know they try to explain this in the movie, but it still doesn’t make sense. A guy like him would be perfect for Elinor, and the two could rule all of England with their awesomeness! But, alas, when Jane Austen wrote this, her teenage mind would not let it so, and thus the greatest romance would be left unwritten until Pride & Prejudice.

(As an aside: did you realize that Jane Austen wrote her first draft of Sense and Sensibility when whe was 19? And it’s still good and immensely readable! Why aren’t there more child prodigy 19-year-olds churning out classic literature nowadays rather than the reams and reams of totally embarassing fan fiction that weighs down the internet these days?)

Which leaves us to the main characters. Kate Winslet already seems like a veteran actress when playing Marianne. I’ve never winced when she’s been nominated for an Academy Award, because Kate’s the real thing. She’s supposed to be the wild one (counterintitively, the “Sensibility” in the title), and she acts like a teenage girl without going beyond the boundaries of the early 19th Century setting. She’s chock full of melodrama — such as the scene where she’s so depressed that she falls ill in the rain — but that makes sense given her age. Emotions are weird when you’re a teenager.

Even better is Emma Thompson as Elinor. It’s hard to appreciate her final breakdown without seeing the whole movie. Take on its own, its a little comedic and a little corny. (My girlfriend said she had seen bits and pieces of this movie beforehand, and I fear she came to the same conclusion about the ending.) But when taken as a whole, Emma plays Elinor as the strong one of the family. She’s the one everyone goes to with their troubles, and they often forget that Elinor has troubles of her own because she won’t share them. She handles all situation with grace and dignity, which contrasts her with the upper class characters who think that they possess those two attributes by inheritance. That’s why when we get to that final scene, where Elinor’s emotional burdens are just too much for her to handle, we can feel everything crashing down. Her stoic facade was just that; there really was a human being underneath who could feel pain and grief and happiness and relief just like anyone.

Finally, before I wrap it up, I should note that this film also contains a stellar bit role. Before he was a famously cantankerous doctor, Hugh Laurie was in Sense and Sensibility as Mr. Palmer. And here’s the wonderful thing: he’s basically playing an English Dr. House! He’s mostly quite, but often irate and rude. But when the chips are down, the guy comes through for the characters. We chuckled a bit when Marianne was sick, and Elinor approaches Mr. Palmer and says that they need a doctor. My girlfriend replied: “OK, I’ll get Dr. House!”

So, all in all, this was a great movie. It was nominated for Best Picture in 1996, but lost to Braveheart. I don’t think that Sense and Sensibility would have won in any case. The plot doesn’t move as smoothly as it should, and Hugh Grant — the male lead — was a bit of a drag. Yet, this is a movie with having, and I’ve watched it several times. The scenery of English countryside is lovely, the acting is mostly wonderful, and the characters are engaging. And if you are unfamiliar with the works of Jane Austen and want to know what the fuss is about, this is a great place to start.


4 thoughts on “Making sense of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility

  1. OK…I really appreciated this review…watching it right now. It really is very good. I don’t know if you are right about the reason Ang Lee was able to pull it off, maybe it was a matter of good staging and decent pacing and maybe people should direct movies in languages other than their native tongue…gives new perspective and makes sure the drama is more visual..but all together is is the best two hour rendition of I think my favorite Austen novel

  2. OK…I really appreciated this review…watching it right now. It really is very good. I don’t know if you are right about the reason Ang Lee was able to pull it off, maybe it was a matter of good staging and decent pacing and maybe people should direct movies in languages other than their native tongue…gives new perspective and makes sure the drama is more visual..but all together is is the best two hour rendition of I think my favorite Austen novel…

  3. Interesting to see another’s perspective on a much loved film. You offered observations and insights I’d not considered. I appreciate these. I also find it fascinating how differently one can feel about characters–particularly Fanny Dashwood.

    Here is my, very different take on Fanny: In my estimation, Fanny Dashwood is the greatest villain of all time!…framed by the subtleties of the age and with the limitations of her world and position, of course. But I found not one thing to like about her or on which to sympathize with her. She is just horrible.

    Lucy Steele, for whom your loathing seems greater, is conniving and manipulative and self serving–yes–but she is so unimaginative about it, and so unskilled in it, that her actions are transparent. She is an opportunist, to be sure–as is borne out by the fact that she follows the money attached to the wholly unappealing Robert Dashwood, rather than staying true to her five year engagement to Edward–who gave everything up for her honor.

    But Fanny, through her self-serving maneuvers and manipulations, ungraciously divests the Dashwood ladies of any rightful financial, social, or residential benefits they might have had, had their half (not step) brother fulfilled his promise to their mutual father. She greedily assumes her position as new mistress of their home on the very heels of the death of Mr. Dashwood, though she already has a fine home and plenty of money through her own family’s fortunes. She offers the mourners no consideration, in spite of the fact that they have lost husband and father, hearth, home and nearly everything but the clothes on their backs. Fanny’s cold heart is revealed again and again–for example, as she cruelly requests the eviction of the youngest and most vulnerable of the family, Margaret, from the sanctuary of her own room so that she (Fanny) might show off HER new acquisition–Norland– to her visiting brother, Edward. She takes insensitivity and lack of compassion to whole new levels, declaring the Dashwood ladies extremely spoiled, unable to understand why they might be in a state of upset over the events of their lives.

    Fanny, in her selfishness, forces these women into the position of paupers (relatively speaking) and then speaks down to them, treats THEM as penniless opportunists (when she makes clear to Mrs. Dashwood that her daughter should not set their sights on Edward…) She takes pleasure in their pains. In fact, she seems to take pleasure in effecting their pains. She is just awful!

    As for their new digs–yes–quite lovely from my point of view as well! But the extreme change in lifestyle–from the vast grounds and fully staffed protections of Norland, to the remote and far reduced space of a “cottage”–drafty, cold, and without a hint of what had heretofore been part of their daily lives (warming firewood-filled hearths and pianofortes and ponies in well kept stables). The changes would have been shocking for them, to say the least. And to go from being consistently well-fed to trying to figure out how to stay fed at all—that would have been a hard new reality. And all of these hardships were made harder and more certain because of Fanny’s actions. It would not have been unheard of to allow them to stay on at Norland, for starters. But even without that, it would have been fit to provide them ongoing allowances to sustain them in more familiar circumstances. After all, they had been part of monied society, as had Fanny, up to the moment their Mr. Dashwood died. Instead of projecting herself into a situation like theirs and sympathizing, she cast them away and made a point of making them feel lesser than she.

    I will stop here. I’ve gone on far too long as it is.

    But…you can you tell how much I dislike Fanny Dashwood! I’ve harbored these feelings for so many years…I appreciate the forum and opportunity to relieve the burden. lol…


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