When Mr. Dashwood dies, he must leave the bulk of his estate to the son by his first marriage, which leaves his second wife and three daughters (Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret) in straitened circumstances. They are taken in by a kindly cousin, but their lack of fortune affects the marriageability of both practical Elinor and romantic Marianne. When Elinor forms an attachment for the wealthy Edward Ferrars, his family disapproves and separates them. And though Mrs. Jennings tries to match the worthy (and rich) Colonel Brandon to her, Marianne finds the dashing and fiery Willoughby more to her taste. Both relationships are sorely tried. But this is a romance, and through the hardships and heartbreak, true love and a happy ending will find their way for both the sister who is all sense and the one who is all sensibility.
For a woman who died a century and three quarters earlier, the mid-1990s were a strangely fertile period in the career of English novelist Jane Austen. Specifically, 1995 saw a surge in film adaptations of her works, launched first by the BBC with a TV movie of 'Persuasion' (which played theatrically in the United States) and a miniseries version of 'Pride and Prejudice'. Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon with 'Clueless' (an uncredited, modern-day take on 'Emma') and finally, to close out the year, the high-profile, prestige picture production of 'Sense and Sensibility'. Exactly how and why all this simultaneous interest in her came to pass is still a bit of a mystery, but as unlikely as it may have seemed, Jane Austen was suddenly all the rage again.
This was hardly the first time anyone had tried to bring Austen's writing to live action, of course. Although the author only completed six novels during her lifetime, all of them had been adapted for television multiple times over the years. However, only the 1940 version of 'Pride and Prejudice' starring Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson managed to score a theatrical release, and it was a box office disappointment in its day. Columbia Pictures actually took a risk in producing 'Sense and Sensibility' as an awards contender in '95. The material was potentially both too familiar to the literary crowd (a TV movie of it had aired as recently as 1990) and generally unappealing to the mainstream theatrical audience. Jane Austen was perceived as being the stuff of PBS 'Masterpiece Theatre', not multiplex screens.
One major factor in the film's favor was star Emma Thompson, who'd recently come off an Oscar win for the somewhat similar period piece adaptation of 'Howard's End' plus another nomination for 'The Remains of the Day'. Jane Austen seemed to be right in her wheelhouse, enough so that producer Lindsay Doran asked her to write the screenplay in addition to acting, despite the fact that Thompson's only previous writing credits were for TV comedy sketches. The actress claimed to be a major fan of Jane Austen and spent five years working on the script before cameras were ready to roll.
Directing duties eventually fell to a Taiwanese filmmaker named Ang Lee. Today, we recognize that he'd later win two Academy Awards of his own ('Brokeback Mountain' and 'Life of Pi'), but at the time, Lee was only known for a trio of low-key character dramas he'd made in his home country: 'Pushing Hands', 'The Wedding Banquet' and 'Eat Drink Man Woman'. All three were respected and acclaimed when imported West, and the last of them even scored an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, but none had exactly made huge waves. Hiring an Asian director to helm such exceedingly English source material must have seemed a risky proposition regardless of his credentials. Fortunately, Lee's skill at working with actors and handling delicate nuances in tone proved a good fit.
As in the novel, the film is a romantic comedy of manners set in late 18th Century England. The story follows the recently widowed mother and three daughters of the Dashwood family. When the family's husband and father passes away, English law of the time requires that his entire estate be passed to his son from a previous marriage, leaving the girls destitute save for a small pittance that the well-meaning heir, under the influence of his own shrewish wife, is able to gift to them. With employment a fanciful and absurd notion, their only hope of bettering their lives is for the daughters to marry well.
The main thrust of the narrative concerns the differences in temperament and romantic prospects between Elinor (Thompson), the eldest and most pragmatic sister, and Marianne (Kate Winslet), the willful and impulsive middle child. Marianne's attentions are divided between two suitors: the much older and (as she considers him) rather dull Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) and the dashing young Mr. Willoughby (Greg Wise). Naturally, she falls head-over-heels (literally, in fact) for the latter. However, as she discovers, he may not be the most practical or suitable match.
Elinor, meanwhile, draws the attention of the sensitive, introverted Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), but his family disapproves of the penniless Dashwoods and another woman already has her sights set on him. Among these and several other characters, affections ebb and flow, and romantic complications ensue.
Like all of Austen's works, 'Sense and Sensibility' is a portrait of a culture at a very specific moment in time. The author's concerns regarding women's place in the social order, the propriety and decorum of polite society, and the unrequited passions of people trapped by their lives are all capably reflected in the screenplay adaptation. Thompson maintains much of the wit from the book while simplifying the arcane language and modernizing a few aspects to make the story more appealing to a contemporary audience. Austen scholars and purists may take issue with some of this, but the changes are all smartly handled.
The acting is quite fine across the board. Thompson had already perfected her mastery of conveying repressed emotions in 'The Remains of the Day' and carries that work over here. Alan Rickman, still mostly known for the over-the-top villains he'd played in 'Die Hard' and 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves', is heartbreaking as the hopelessly besotted Brandon. The real standout of the film is Kate Winslet, appearing in her first major Hollywood production after her breakout role in Peter Jackson's 'Heavenly Creatures'. By turns idealistic, naïve, strong-willed and adorable, she's captivating to watch. Her role as Marianne would land the actress her first of several Oscar nominations.
As director, Lee mostly tries to stay out of the way of the material. He balances the multitude of characters and storylines well, and the film's period production values are handsomely mounted (though Thompson's dresses are weirdly unflattering; for years, I assumed that the actress must have been pregnant during filming, but the timeline doesn't match up with the birth of her first child). Beyond that, Lee doesn't bring anything particularly distinctive of his own personality or authorial voice to the movie. This was clearly a for-hire assignment to get his foot in the Hollywood studio door, not an auteurist work. While there isn't necessarily anything wrong with that, the movie often feels coldly impersonal, like it's going through all the required motions without ever fully springing to life. It's pretty but sedate.
The source novel also brings its own limitations. For as much as Austen tries to make the Dashwood girls clever and independent, all of the story's conflicts ultimately hinge on (and are resolved by) Elinor and Marianne each finding the right man to marry. After they do, all of their problems are solved. The book was of course a product of its day, but any proto-feminist leanings feel undermined by the triviality of the plot.
My own objections aside, the film was a big success. It made a sizable profit at the box office, was widely acclaimed, and earned seven Oscar nominations – of which Thompson won for her screenplay. Numerous other Jane Austen adaptations have followed in its wake, including another TV miniseries remake of 'Sense and Sensibility' itself, but Lee and Thompson's film remains the standard by which all others are judged.
Sony Pictures had rumored a Blu-ray release for 'Sense and Sensibility' back in the early days of the format, but the disc never materialized. After a long delay, the studio has now licensed the title to Twilight Time as a limited edition with a pressing run of only 3,000 copies. Like most Twilight Time releases, the Blu-ray has a simple static menu. A booklet inside the keepcase contains an essay by Twilight Time employee Julie Kirgo. The artwork on the cover of that booklet would have made for a much nicer choice of main case art than the weirdly washed-out copy of the theatrical poster image that was used instead.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer featured on this disc presents something of a conundrum for me as a Blu-ray reviewer. Without any inside technical information about the source used, it appears to be a new master, not one recycled from the DVD era. I also assume that it was probably scanned at 4k, as is standard practice at Sony Pictures these days. In many respects, the 1.85:1 image exhibits most of the qualities that I typically look for and praise in a good transfer. It is, for the most part, very sharp and detailed, has vivid colors, and retains the structure of film grain without any evident Digital Noise Reduction artifacts. I won't be surprised at all if most other reviews of this disc lavish it with higher marks than I will.
So what's the problem? This may sound like a strange complaint, but I actually think that the transfer is too good in some ways. The film scan is so transparent to the source that fluctuations in clarity, sharpness and graininess from one shot to the next within a given scene (especially those shot in candlelight) stand out in stark contrast to one another. The grain in some scenes is so crisply resolved that it looks noisy and distracting. In exteriors, the green grass is so vibrant that it looks artificial. To my eye, the picture often looks more harshly digital than film-like.
When the movie originally played in theaters, the 35mm theatrical prints of the time would have, by nature, suffered a general softening through generation loss that would have evened out many of these issues. The filmmakers would have known and expected that. In this instance, I think that slightly softer textures might look more appropriate and pleasing. That's not to say that I wish Sony had whacked this transfer with the DNR stick. However, I do think that there could have been a middle ground between the soft theatrical prints and this sometimes hyper-vivid Blu-ray.
On the other hand, the transfer looks really great a lot of the time too. Grain seems to tone down in the second half of the movie. Close-ups of the actresses' faces are gorgeous, and I found myself transfixed by details in the production design that I probably wouldn't have noticed before. On balance, my impressions of the transfer are more favorable than not. Nonetheless, it doesn't look entirely natural to me.
According to the end credits, 'Sense and Sensibility' was mixed and distributed in Sony's now-defunct SDDS audio format, which was configured with five channels of sound across the front soundstage and two surrounds. (SDDS was a cinema format only; Sony never released a home version.) Despite that, the sound mix for this movie isn't too adventurous. The Blu-ray offers listening options in the choice of DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. I primarily watched the film in 5.1 and then sampled a few scenes in 2.0. From what I can tell, the two tracks sound more similar than not.
The movie is talky by nature. Dialogue, even the gentlest of whispers, is always clear and discernible. Patrick Doyle's wistful score is presented with nice musicality. To the soundtrack's credit, subtle auditory details such as crackling fire or creaking wood are rendered with great precision and clarity.
Beyond that, neither track has much noticeable surround activity and both have negligible bass. In fact, the old DVD edition of the movie was encoded in Dolby Digital 5.0 format and didn't even bother pretending it had any LFE content. If there's any here, I didn't hear it.
The Blu-ray carries over all of the bonus features originally found on the 1999 DVD release of 'Sense and Sensibility':
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
In addition to the above, the Blu-ray has several new features. Unfortunately, all of them are comprised of old Electronic Press Kit footage that's very promotional in nature.
I've never completely fallen in love with Ang Lee and Emma Thompson's 1995 adaptation of 'Sense and Sensibility', but it's an interesting film with plenty of pleasurable moments and scenes. The Blu-ray from Twilight Time features a video transfer that I likewise have mixed feelings about, but it has more positive qualities than negative. The disc is recommended for fans of the film or of author Jane Austen.