Movie Review - Sense and Sensibility (1995)

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Ang Lee
Columbia Pictures Corporation
 for mild thematic elements

I suppose there’s something to be said for a touch of realism; where concerns for historical accuracy lead writers to expose their audiences to the less picturesque aspects of life as it was in a particular place at a particular time. There’s something understandable about it, anyway. We don’t live there or then, so it makes sense for filmmakers, for example, to insert little comments or images here and there to draw our attention to things that made other eras different, even if those things actually didn’t happen or even come up in conversation that much during that era. Addition is understandable. Emphasis is understandable. So why is it that, in a film that took so much liberty with the original dialogue for the sake of period-specific realism, the most significant aspect of any culture, let alone early nineteenth-century England, was unapologetically, unmistakably left out altogether? Where is Christ, and where are his followers, in Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility?

We might say, I suppose, that God was still honored in this adaptation of Sense and Sensibility by the basic upholding of beauty, which is in one sense God’s creation, and in another his attribute. The flow of the story, the well-balanced dialogue, the scenery and the cinematography generally witnessed quite well to the fact that beauty and form are things of value, and—in a really round-about way—to the fact that their origin is in a transcendent God. We, as Christians, however, cannot divorce the dignity of the creation from the divinity of the Creator. The filmmakers… well, they can’t really do it, either, but I believe they may have tried to here.

Often, the good things in this movie are so muddled, it’s difficult sometimes to distinguish between the good and the bad. The movie briefly references a character’s desire to become a minister, which ought to be good, but his desire seems to have little to do with religious conviction, and he says he wishes to only “give very short sermons.” The Dashwood ladies do attend church, and we even see them there once, but the minister is neither dignified nor interesting, the youngest Dashwood girl humorously talks through the sermon, and the next-youngest girl had actually obtained her mother’s permission to absent herself from the gathering of the church to spend the morning with a young man she might have seen any day of the week.
Technically there are two references to God, but neither of them can be attributed to religious devotion, or even cultural convention.
Just the opposite from what one usually hears, in the case of Sense and Sensibility, it’s the lack of explicitly Christian conversation that feels awkward and contrived. The oldest Dashwood girl has been dealing with heartbreak for months; she’s facing the impending death of her younger sister; she’s been awake day and night carrying out vessels of the girl’s blood, thanks to the filmmakers’ interest in antiquated medical practices; she’s on the edge of hysteria; and here, where it would have been the most natural place in the world to write in a quick “God help me” or “God save her,” we see the character crying out in anguish, despair and utter dependence… on the unconscious girl beside her. It seems that the historical realism stopped when it came to even cultural Christianity in the nineteenth century.

The positive pictures of family relationships are also rather mixed up, occasionally featuring some touching loyalty, but generally in the context of a foolish mother, a wise oldest daughter, a redeemed middle daughter, and a brat of a youngest daughter. All the children from the original story have been completely left out of the movie except for the young Margaret Dashwood and the infant son of an ignorant woman and a sarcastic man who provides comic relief by openly despising his own wife and child.
Femininity is apparently upheld by its belonging to the heroine of the story, but on the other hand it is portrayed as being a limit to one’s purpose in life. Elinor Dashwood is not only burdened by the unique failings of her family members; she’s also unable to escape the burden and the boredom by pursuing a career, she suggests. Young Margaret’s femininity is retained in her ringlets and pinafores, but while she is not exactly a rugged tomboy, her tree house and sword fighting—her travel plans and her Captain Margaret-ing—come across as an attempt to escape the perceived handicaps of her own sex.

I know that many ladies use Sense and Sensibility as an inspiration for their own dressmaking, and that, too, could be considered a good thing insofar as the film encourages beauty in clothing. Unfortunately, not all of the costumes are equally worth copying, and unfortunately there are many that are so frightfully revealing as to warrant a caution against seeing the movie at all, for many people. And while the remaining sexual content is pretty much invisible, and never mentioned in defiling terms, you still have to face less than subtle hints at fornication, promiscuity and multigenerational legacies of unwed motherhood—in different words from the original story, but all according to Jane Austen’s own brand of realism.
Gossip is shown to be bad, but mocking the gossiper is shown to be humorous. Young ladies lie about the subject of their conversation to people who didn’t have any business asking what it was. A man speaks gallantly about Shakespeare’s sonnets being “a talisman against further injury,” and a fellow refers to another man’s dog by another common name for the creature—jokes and conventional vocabulary for that time period, but possibly offensive to those who live in this one.

There are many things good and praiseworthy in Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, and those things might understandably keep this film forever on the favorite movies list of women everywhere. Speaking strictly of the film as a piece of art, I believe there’s no better Jane Austen film to be had; and, as a piece of art, it appealed to me significantly more than the earlier Sense and Sensibility adaptation did, which I gave an Enjoyable rating. My giving the 1995 version a Not Worth Watching Again mustn’t be taken as a sign of disregard for the quality of the productions, or preference for three-hour long Jane Austen movies over two-hour ones; it most definitely is not. But if a young girl were to ask me which movie she should see after having read the book and loved it, I would point her to the film with the least shocking necklines rather than the one with the most beautiful costumes; the one with the most honorable family relationships rather than the one with the most complex characters; the one that bears a better witness to true Christianity than to the beginnings of women’s lib. In short, on such an occasion, I probably wouldn’t suggest the movie I’ve just reviewed.

I don’t believe there’s anything inherently sinful about watching Sense and Sensibility; I’m afraid I just can’t see myself recommending it to anyoneespecially not to girls under twelve or to boys under an hundred and twelve. Ordinarily I would suggest parental guidance, but in this case I think just maternal guidance would be better.

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