Friday, January 28, 2011

Sense and Sensibility - 2008

The 2008 version of Sense and Sensibility is a beautiful film, written by that giant of Austen adaptations, Andrew Davies, but while I watch and rewatch it (on this occasion, as part of my participation in the Sense and Sensibility Bicentenary Challenge, hosted by Austenprose), hoping to enjoy it more each time, there is something about this movie that just does not sit quite right with me. Unlike its predecessor, the 1995 Ang Lee film (read my review here), which blatantly had a large influence on this later production (from Mr. Dashwood's deathbed scene, to the exaggerated depiction of the Dashwood ladies poverty, and including Marianne's ill-conceived tromp through the rain), there is a darkness to this version that fails to celebrate the comic aspects of the original story. It's impossible not to compare the two movies, as they share far more than a storyline, but with three hours in which to do the tale justice, I wish the newer production had better succeeded in staying true to the original ambiance of Sense and Sensibility, rather than over dramatizing (and over romanticizing) the plot.

I could make a list of the incongruities, but that would feel peevish, so I will just name the two that irk me the most. The first, and most troublesome, is the more explicit (and sinister) sexuality displayed, both in Willoughby's relationships with Colonel Brandon's ward, Eliza, and with Marianne. The former is particularly troublesome as the Colonel seems perfectly aware of Willoughby's trespasses from the moment he arrives in Barton, but does not challenge the rogue until he abandons Marianne, in whose name he has no right to fight. My second complaint is more trifling, but it is emblematic of the entire overly sensational nature of this adaptation, and that is the setting. While I have never been to Devonshire, I can read a map, and I have a hard time understanding how the cliff-ridden, ocean views that surround Barton Cottage in this film could possibly be located "four miles northward of Exetor", which should place it decidedly inland. Yes, the ocean scape is breathtaking, but its overall effect is only to add to the too heatedly romantic atmosphere.

That being said, I cannot emphasize enough how gorgeous is the film's cinematography. Just because I don't feel it quite works, does not in any way undermine its beautiful aesthetics. Also, some of the casting is equally magnificent. I adore Dominic Cooper as Willoughby. He looks just right, and his internal struggles are more clearly portrayed than in other interpretations. Similarly, while Dan Stevens initially seems a bit too at ease for Edward (which I admit adds to his charm - I do not have a great fondness for Mr. Ferrars), his performance grows on me as he so clearly fights against his intense feelings for Elinor while despairing over his engaged state. Really all the performances are quite good, it is just that most of them pale besides those of the 1995 version, with two very notable exception, even if they are small roles. The first is Mark Williams as Sir John Middleton. I am predisposed towards Mr. Willaims, as he will always be, in my mind, Mr. Weasley, but the script for this film also develops the kindlier aspects of his personality, which are definitely present in the novel, while most films render him only a buffoon. The second and, frankly, more notable, is Daisy Haggard as the elder Miss Steele. She is the one glimmer of comic relief in the film, and the personification of Austen's original creation.

But it is wrong to not mention how wonderful Hattie Morahan is as Elinor Dashwood, even if I do prefer Emma Thompson in the role. Similarly, Charity Wakefield is a very good Marianne, it's just that Kate Winslet is far better, and the fact that the former resembles the latter makes it very difficult to disregard the comparison. Furthermore, I think I actually prefer Lucy Boynton as Margaret Dashwood to Emilie Francois, but as she is more Emma Thompson's creation than Austen's, it is hard to attribute proper credit to the interpretation. Again, as much as I try to praise, I fall into criticism. It is clear that all my biases lean towards the 1995 version, and no matter in how many ways the 2008 film will triumph, it will never measure up in my mind. I feel particularly guilty about this sad review as it is certainly a far better movie than the previous BBC renditions, made in 1971 and 1981, which, however, I find very easy to praise, as my expectations for them were never so high, and because I am always trying to convince people to give them a try (most Austen fans require no such persuasion to watch the 2008 production). This film should be celebrated and appreciated, and my prejudices are preventing me from doing it proper justice. It is simply that, in this case, Hollywood far outshown the BBC. I suppose it will happen at times, and the mid-90's were a particularly magical time for Austen adaptations - The Golden Age, if you will.

So let me end on a positive note with a quote from Marianne, spoken to her mother and Elinor on their return trip to Barton Cottage, after their stay at Cleveland. The words are all Davies', but the sentiment summarizes, very concisely, what is perhaps the most universal theme in all of Austen's novels, and therefore deserves note:
"It is not what we say or feel that makes us what we are, it is what we do, or fail to do." 
Only a true Janeite could say it so very well!


  1. I loved this adaptation of S&S. Actually, it is very difficult for me to choose between this one and 1995 Emma Thompson's film. I liked Willoughby and Marianne more in that version but I really love them both. I think Andrew Davies did a very good job, as usual. I particularly loved the natural setting in this recent TV adaptation.
    Thanks for this review, Alexa.

  2. Hi Maria. I don't know how much you perceived it, but I had a lot of trouble trying to properly express my feelings about this movie. I do think it is very good, and I hope that came out, but its just lacking a certain sparkle. I too think the setting is gorgeous, it just doesn't feel right to me for this story. Davies is excellent, there is no question about that, and I truly hope that I did some justice to him here.

  3. I found myself nodding in agreement over the seaside views of Devonshire... I was caught off guard by them as well! It reminded me of Wuthering Heights. LOL

    But overall, I think I preferred the 2008 version, at least for the characters themselves. (Alan Rickman aside, because I will always adore his Col. Brandon best) ♥

    Dan Stevens was completely charming as Edward, and Hattie seemed more convincing as Elinor, in my opinion, perhaps because of her age?
    Emma always felt "too old" to be playing Elinor, even though I love her dearly as an actress.

    I liked the length and pacing of the film, because the Ang Lee adaption felt rushed.
    Also appreciated were the additional scenes which the 1995 film cut.... Willoughby's return during Marianne's illness, for instance. It was a moving scene from the novel, which I really missed in Emma's version.

    I do agree with you about the sexuality though, especially since I watched it with my 8-year-old daughter. LOL
    I squirmed through the opening sequence, thinking "Is all this passion really necessary?!"

    Great review, Alexa! :)

  4. Hmmm. I had a very long response. And then blogger ate it up. Here's the short version, now with added numbered points!

    1) Thank you for such an open review - it's rare to see bias admitted so kindly.

    2) Though it does steal from Thompson, I find I love this version more, as it converted me from ranking S&S last on my Austen list, to second (tying with all the other novels).

    3) It did this mostly because of Hattie Morahan's performance - when she confesses to Marianne of her torment, instead of exploding like Emma Thompson, she hides her tears with her hand, as if she knows they make others uncomfortable and wishes to spare others. That kind of a portrayal of deeply-ingrained selflessness tranformed me from an admirer of Morahan and the production to a full-fledged devotee.

    4) Though the cinematography initially sucked me in, with it's sharp, clear contrasts like the funeral procession.

    5) The supporting cast was also brilliant, from your mentions above of Cooper, Williams, and Boyton, to small bits like Lady Middleton. Of course, no one could equal Hugh Laurie, so I feel Davies just deleted most of his part to avoid competition there.

    6) I've always felt S&S was the most dark and sensual of the Austen novels, so the tone actually felt quite appropriate to me (much more than the 2005 P&P, which was drippy where it should have been bright). And the seduction opening was perhaps questionable, but I was relieved it was relatively tasteful, and it is chronologically accurate.

    Thanks for such a delightful review!

  5. Thanks, TaraFly! I wonder if you read my review of the 1995 film, perhaps after writing this comment, because while I do prefer it, I too address your concerns (chopped scenes, Thompson's age). One of my biggest issues with the 2008 version is that I had such high hopes for it, which it did not live up to. Expectations can be a killer.

    You are very welcome, ibmiller. I hate when blogger looses my comments (it always seems to happen to the lengthy ones, doesn't it?). You make your points very well, and I cannot really argue with them. As I just said to TaraFly, my expectations for this movie were so high that it was probably doomed from the start. If they had managed to capture more humor, which is really my biggest beef, I would have been able to overlook a lot of my other issues. Eleanor, though it is not often recognized, has some of the wittiest and most biting things to say in Austen - these lines are my favorite part of the book, and they are almost completely neglected here. I do like Morahan's portrayal, but it seems almost too staid to me. I will also just say that no film, no matter how well done, has ever changed my overall opinion of a book. I think Davies' Pride and Prejudice one of the best literary adaptations ever made, but it never altered my feelings about the book. While I expect films to stay true to the cores of the stories they tell, I still judge them on their own account, but that's just me.

  6. I participate in the challenge too, and i quite agree with you: this version lacks a sparkle. The 1995 movie was much livelier. You can read my own review of both films here:

  7. Hi Pascale. I am pleased to know we agree and would LOVE to read your reviews but access seems limited to only those with passwords. Is there anyway to get around this? My poor French might be part of the hindrance.

  8. Alexa, maybe you can try to go first to my website:
    Then you go to "BLOG", and to the post about "Sense and sensibility". The post is in french but at the end of it, you can click to go to the english version.

  9. Thanks for sharing Pascale! I enjoyed your post, and yes, our feelings are remarkably similar.