Sense and Sensibility
Tagline for Sense and Sensibility
Romantic comedy made a comeback in the mid-'90s, thanks largely to the re-discovery of Jane Austen, the British novelist famous for her stories of romance and manners. A film adaptation of Persuasion won critical claim earlier in 1995, while Clueless, a modernized version of Emma, made Alicia Silverstone a star the same year. Also that year, a television miniseries based on Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth, scored in Great Britain (it would prove an equal success in the U.S. the following year). But Austen's greatest hit of 1995 was Sense and Sensibility, an adaptation of her often-forgotten first novel. Not only did the film land on more than 100 10-best lists, but it helped propel Kate Winslet to stardom and made Emma Thompson the first person ever to follow an Oscar® for acting (for Howard's End in 1992) with one for writing.
Producer Lindsay Doran had first fallen in love with Austen's novel when she had briefly lived in England 25 years earlier. A child of Hollywood, Doran knew a good story when she saw it, but it took two decades for her to rise to a position as a producer that would allow her to shop the property around. After scoring with This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and Ghost (1990), she won a place with director Sydney Pollack's production company, Mirage Enterprises, where she worked on Dead Again (1991), co-starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. Doran was impressed with Thompson's wit on the set. When Los Angeles public television aired Thompson, a sketch comedy series the actress had written as well as starred in, Doran felt she had found the perfect person to adapt Sense and Sensibility to the screen.
Thompson spent four years on the screenplay, going through countless story conferences and revisions. Gradually, she focused her story as much on the relationship between the two older Dashwood sisters as on their romantic dreams. At the time, she hoped Doran would cast real-life sisters Natasha and Joely Richardson, the daughters of Vanessa Redgrave. Meanwhile, Doran decided to offer the directing job to Taiwan-based Ang Lee. At first that seemed an odd choice, but she felt that films like The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) combined complex family relationships with social comedy much as Austen's novels did . Lee made his own suggestions on the script, often replacing lengthy dialogue scenes with visuals. He also suggested that Thompson would be perfect to play the older sister, Elinor. When she tried to argue that at 36 she was too old to play the 19-year-old character, he suggested raising her age to 27, which would make her more believable to modern audiences as a spinster.
Thompson had written the role of her love interest, Edward, with Hugh Grant in mind, and he agreed to play the role for lower than his usual fee since the film was only budgeted at $15 million. They had more trouble finding the right actress for Elinor's younger, more romantic sister, Marianne. Kate Winslet wanted the role, but had only been asked to read for a supporting part because Lee had not cared for her work in her previous film, Heavenly Creatures (1994). At the audition, she pretended her agent had told her she was reading for Marianne, then she nailed the part and won it based on a single reading.
During filming, Lee had some problems adjusting to the Western approach to filmmaking. In particular, he was not prepared to deal with actors who questioned direction and even made suggestions about shots. Back in his native Taiwan, he had been considered something of a directing god, and the actors there simply took his direction without a quibble. Some in the British cast had problems with his authoritarian approach. In particular, he seemed determined to have Grant deliver a performance unlike any he had given before. He was so critical, often railing about the actors in Chinese, that Grant took to calling him "The Brute" behind his back.
But Lee also made demands that deepened the film's meaning. He instructed Winslet to read novels and poetry from the era and report to him on them so that she could fully understand her character's romantic side. He also asked the actors to write letters to each other in character since letter writing was the principal means of communication in Austen's day. Perhaps his wisest suggestion was asking Winslet and Thompson to room together during filming so they could develop a sisterly bond. Both were going through painful breakups at the time -- Winslet from a boyfriend; Thompson from her husband -- and that brought them even closer. In fact, they remain friends to this day.
Whatever Lee did, it worked. Sense and Sensibility was a surprise hit, bringing in $135 million worldwide on its small budget. It also was one of the dominant films come awards time, picking up Best Picture honors from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), the National Board of Review, the Boston Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics and the Golden Globes. Thompson and Winslet won several acting honors, while Thompson was equally feted for her writing. The star and writer also enjoyed another more personal reward from the film. During shooting she fell in love with co-star Greg Wise, cast as the nobleman who loves and then spurns her sister. The two have a daughter, whom Thompson has referred to jokingly as "jane.com," and were finally married in 2003.
Producer: Lindsay Doran
Director: Ang Lee
Screenplay: Emma Thompson
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
Cinematography: Michael Coulter
Art Direction: Luciana Arrighi, Philip Alton
Music: Patrick Doyle
Principal Cast: Emma Thompson (Elinor Dashwood), Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars), Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon), Greg Wise (John Willoughby), Gemma Jones (Mrs. Dashwood), Elizabeth Spriggs (Mrs. Jennings), Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele).
C-137m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Frank Miller