Sense And Sensibility

on December 15, 1995 by Kim Williamson
   All the elements for some success--or great failure--were there: Oscar winner Emma Thompson making her scripting debut; art-house favorite Ang Lee ("Eat Drink Man Woman") making his first studio (and non-Asian) film; the able but relatively unknown Kate Winslet ("Heavenly Creatures") and Greg Wise ("Feast of July") playing in support; and technical talents that had helped make "Howards End" so splendid and "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" so scant. And the studio in question, Columbia, had a mixed record last yuletide with highbrow fare, with aud- iences enthralled by "Little Women" but turning a deaf ear to "Immortal Beloved."
   Aptly for a year that began with a fine film about women and their relationships (Warner's "Boys on the Side"), it closes with another. "Sense and Sensibility," an adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel, is an instant classic itself. Part pianoforte, part winkling, Thompson's Oscar-worthy screenplay combines toniness and comedy in the tale of two poor-relations sisters, Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Winslet) Dashwood, and their romantic troubles and triumphs with a trio of eligible bachelors: the older Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), bearer of a dark secret; the dashing John Willoughby (Wise), whose loving heart wars with his feral body; and the politely religious Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), who dreams of running a rustic parish but whose family demands he adopt a career more given to high society. Working in exemplary tandem, director Lee and scripter Thompson prove that passion and pain need be no strangers to the romantic comedy genre, elevating what in other hands might have been just a fetching piece of folderol into one of the most rapturous and wrenching works of recent cinema. That said, Thompson's comic nature (her origins are in revue) has full freedom here, filling "Sense and Sensibility" with hearty and exquisite laughs.
   Like Thompson's script all Academy-worthy in their categories, Lee's direction shows that his finely honed understanding of the human condition knows no cultural borders; Thompson's turn as the older, introverted Elinor aches with withheld ardor; Winslet makes her younger, extroverted Marianne blaze with passion, a female flash-point amid Victorian conven- tion; Michael Coulter's lensing luminously captures diverse exteriors (London's hustle-bustle, rural quietude) and interiors (the wealthy's elegance, the less fortunate's spareness); and production designer Luciana Arrighi and costumers Jenny Beavan and John Bright make ravishing contributions to this period piece. As the suitors, Grant does his trademark--the handsome discombobulate--with renewed charm; Wise brings the requisite flash but unexpected longing to Willoughby; and Rickman infuses his colonel with mournful angst.
   One gets the sense that, when former spouse Kenneth Branagh set about adapting "Frankenstein," he set out to work, and that with "Sense and Sensibility" Thompson set out to play. Here, there's no weltanschauung, just a look at one of that world's tiny corners. The startling result is the best film of the year. Starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman and Greg Wise. Directed by Ang Lee. Written by Emma Thompson. Produced by Lindsay Doran. A Columbia release. Romantic comedy. Rated PG for mild thematic elements. Running time: 136 min
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