Sir Walter Scott confessed that, although he could write action adventure novels “like any now going,” he lacked Jane Austen’s genius, “the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting.” Filmmakers should take note. Infusing an Austen novel with testosterone does not make it better, and the 2008 BBC Sense and Sensibility seems to prove the point.
The made for TV Sense and Sensibility develops the story of the male characters and emphasizes the building antagonism between Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) and John Willoughby (Dominic Cooper). Granted, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility alludes to the sad fate of Eliza Williams and mentions a duel, presumably with pistols, but Austen dwells on neither event, as they do not forward her main story, the plight of the Dashwoods. However, Eliza (Caroline Hayes) and the duel feature prominently in the three hour film as Colonel Brandon takes center stage. So much refocusing on Sense and Sensibility’s male characters requires the invention of new scenes and a great deal of dialogue that Jane Austen never wrote, such as the “a word with you in private, Mr. Willoughby” scene early in the film, which clearly identifies Brandon as a stricken, Byronic hero and Willoughby as a dyed in the wool villain. But why give away so much so soon?
Jane Austen’s Willoughby is a charm merchant, simultaneously deceiving Marianne, the other characters and the first time reader with his winning ways. We are puzzled by his odd behavior, shocked to learn of his duplicity and surprised by his confession. In complete contrast, the film’s Willoughby oozes onto the screen, slides about like Edmund Blackadder and then exits leaving a slug trail behind. The clear delineation between Brandon and Willoughby reduces the plot to a standard contest between good and evil with Eliza Williams and Marianne Dashwood as pawns to be won or lost by the contending males. When Willoughby snubs Marianne in London, the Dashwood sisters fade from the screen as the camera lingers on Brandon’s glare of seething hatred. The scene is clearly Brandon’s, but, in Austen’s novel, Brandon is not even present at the ball. When the Brandon/Willoughby feud finally builds up to the sword fight, yes, sword fight, it feels more like watching Russell Crowe’s Master and Commander than an adaptation of an Austen novel. But in the midst of all of this swashbuckling and male bravado, we must not lose track of Edward Ferrars, who has transformed beyond recognition from the Edward of Austen’s book.
Austen’s Edward is shy, socially awkward and “not handsome.” Additionally, “his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.” But there’s none of that in Dan Stevens’ Edward Ferrars. From his first appearance in the invented carpet beating scene, Edward is witty, articulate, confident and flashing a charming smile. Edward’s depression and “want of spirits” in the novel are replaced with anger which he unleashes on the Dashwoods’ wood pile, in the rain. It is an odd business.
No doubt, the BBC filmmakers felt the pressure of adapting Austen’s novel in the wake of the tremendous success of Emma Thompson’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility and attempted to create something different. Thus, it appears a bit strange that Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) seems to have borrowed Emma Thompson’s voice, and Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield) has Kate Winslet’s hair. As in Thompson’s film, we see the courtship of Elinor through Edward’s winning over of an adorable Margaret (in this case Lucy Boynton), and Colonel Brandons in both films seem inclined to rescue their Mariannes from torrential rainstorms and carry them about, none of which takes place in Austen’s novel. One has to feel sympathy for Morahan and Wakefield, following in the footsteps as they do of BAFTA and Academy Award winning actresses in the same roles. And the women’s parts have changed very little, so it sometimes seems that we are watching the Thompson film with stand-ins. However, both actresses perform admirably.
The first half of the film doesn’t quite make it to the end of Austen’s first volume, one third of the story, which probably explains why most of Austen’s other characters have been cut to the bone. Janet McTeer is particularly sympathetic as Mrs. Dashwood. The shameless John Dashwood (Mark Gatiss) and his appalling wife Fanny (Claire Skinner) are appropriately odious, and their gluttonous son (Morgan Overton) is the perfect embodiment of his parents’ insatiable greed. Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett) is little more than a plot device, and Lucy Steele (Anna Madeley) is also reduced to necessity. Sir John Middleton (Mark Williams), Lady Middleton (Rosanna Lavelle), Robert Ferrars (Leo Bill), Mr. Palmer (Tim McMullan) and the garrulous Charlotte (Tabitha Wady) are given cameo appearances and a very few lines. Jean Marsh is perfect as the obnoxious Mrs. Ferrars, and Daisy Haggard was an unexpected treat as the dimwitted Nancy Steele. Alas, their screen time is all too short, and when Austen’s minor characters go, they take their humour with them.
The windswept scenery is dramatic and beautiful, though more Bronte’s Wuthering Heights than Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and nature seems to be yet another dangerous character. In the novel, Marianne’s illness is brought on from walking in tall grass and sitting in her wet shoes and stockings. In the film, Marianne has a death wish and deliberately exposes herself to the elements in an open field during a thunder storm where she is lashed by rain, soaked to the skin and possibly struck by lightning. A seduction, a rescue, a sword fight, jealousy, betrayal, obsession, hatred, revenge, it’s all a bit over the top, but no doubt Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland would have enjoyed it.
Sheryl Craig is an Instructor at the University of Central Missouri. She is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Kansas.