Sense and Sensibility is a big movie about small gestures. It's easy to see why Jane Austen (whose 1811 novel of the same title is the basis for Emma Thompson's screenplay) is enjoying her present vogue in Hollywood: Her characters are written to be acted. A flicker of eyes or faint emphasis of a syllable can carry a full measure of meaning in a late-18th-century world whose elaborately strict conventions strike the modern American eye as at once familiar and exotic.
Thompson also stars in the movie. She plays Elinor Dashwood, eldest daughter of a widow (Gemma Jones) who, because of England's primogeniture laws, loses the family's country home when the patriarch dies. The big house (which, surrounded by gorgeous parkland and lawns, resembles Brideshead in Brideshead Revisited) passes instead to a son by an earlier marriage, while the Dashwood women find themselves exiled to a cottage in Devonshire.
The film could easily be gloomy, a candlelight march to spinsterhood, but director Ang Lee (The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman) consistently captures an iridescent grandeur in the English countryside. The treeless Downs are the sort of setting in which King Lear or characters from Thomas Hardy might come to grief, but for Lee they shimmer with the promise of freedom and release.
Certainly freedom is much on the minds of the Dashwood ladies. Ensconced in their cottage, they're like something out of a Tennessee Williams play: They must wait for gentlemen callers to rescue them from what is, essentially, a warehouse for surplus women. They live lives of reaction; society grants them no real independence from men. They cannot make their own way.
Luckily, men are about — and looking. Elinor's ravishing younger sister, Marianne (Kate Winslet), finds herself the object of the affections of two men: the noble, melancholy Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman, whose voice strikingly resembles Donald Sutherland's); and the rakish John Willoughby (Greg Wise), who fetches Marianne home after she has sprained her ankle on the rainy heath.
Marianne is an archetype of English fiction: the sensuous, impetuous young woman who bridles at the proprieties society expects her to honor. She is very much like Lucy in E.M. Forster's A Room With a View and Helen in Howards End — the willful female character careering toward a head-on collision with decorum.
Elinor is no less passionate, but she's older and more sensible. For all the characters' talk about marrying for love, Elinor understands that marriage reflects money and social standing — assets in short supply at the Dashwoods' country redoubt. Her own heart breaks early in the movie, when a promising flirtation with a young nobleman, Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), is interrupted by her family's exile and Edward's meddlesome mother, who wants him back in London. But Elinor is a stoic: Despite her pain, she knows there's nothing she can do about their separation.
Grant, having played, disastrously, a series of British yuppies, shows a stumbling grace in his role that is, finally, affecting. His facial twitching, which can seem grotesque in close-up, is faintly sympathetic in the medium-range shots Lee wisely favors. Grant seems entirely at home in a world of high, stiff collars and jodhpurs — he's a real 18th-century gentleman, stammering with modesty.
No scene with Thompson in it can lack for life. She's not quite beautiful, but her clear skin and eyes radiate a vivid energy, and, as always, she carries the movie's moral sense. In a crisis, all eyes turn to Elinor, and she never fails to pick up the burden, no matter how heavy her own secret sorrows.
Sense and Sensibility is Emma Thompson's first screenplay, and while there are more than a few uneasy moments, the overall effect is powerful. She manages to incorporate much of Austen's own dialogue while giving the speeches a modern suppleness and rhythm. Only rarely do the characters' exchanges seem wooden and dated. And the cast seems to understand their lines to the core. It's a bit like listening to Shakespeare — quite a few of the words and phrases are quaint or even unfamiliar, but they're spoken with a rapid naturalness that bridges the gaps in meaning.
The screenplay gets plenty of help from Ang Lee, who has a nice eye for visual jokes. In one of the movie's early scenes, the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret (Emile François), gives her opinion about the family's impending banishment by raising the rope ladder to her treehouse while Elinor gazes up helplessly. That lone act tells more about the little girl's will and unsparing perspicuity than five minutes of even the best talk.
The movie has a lot of muted but sharp wit, visual and verbal. It also has a vivid clown, the indefatigable Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs), who looks like Mrs. Claus. Despite her girth, she barrels through the picture on a mission to marry off every eligible woman she can find. For her, the two elder Dashwood sisters are a mother lode of matrimonial possibility, and after Marianne's catastrophic rupture with Willoughby, Mrs. Jennings conceives her plan for a raid on the London season, where beaus can be found for both young ladies.
Despite serious themes and real emotional crises, Sense and Sensibility is never heavy or slow on its feet. Like Edith Wharton, Jane Austen is a kind of wry protofeminist; she grasps the inequalities that beset women, the basic ridiculousness of their subordinate position in society, but she's also a passionate social observer and is willing to describe what she sees as well as suggest what she thinks she ought to be seeing. She is ironic rather than openly moralistic; her sidelong sharpness, in Thompson's hands, translates well to the screen.
If a central theme of the movie is repression, then another must be the exhilaration of expressing, even indirectly, a strong feeling about another person. For these people, a brush of lips across a proffered hand is powerful stuff; so is the trembling exchange — “Miss Dashwood,” “Mr. Ferrars” — between Grant and Thompson near the end. We may not envy them the stiff frilliness of their clothes and their social conventions, but we know what they're feeling, because in their own nuanced way, they tell us.
Sense and Sensibility opens Wed, Dec. 13, at the Shattuck in Berkeley, and Fri, Dec. 15, at the Metro in