Last week, after uttering the foulest of foul profanities on national television, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd responded to the hubbub by grumbling, “I can’t go back now on TV and say, ‘Hey, kids, don’t say that.’ It was said, it was done, and I can’t go back and apologize.” Anyone who wonders why the works of Jane Austen have experienced such a revival in the past few years need look no further than that comment, so indicative of our breakdown in manners. Hearing Lloyd’s non-apologya statement really more disturbing than his original improprietyis enough to make anyone yearn for a more ordered, genteel time when society had rules and people at least tried to abide by them.
Ang Lee’s film of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is the latest visit to that more mannered era, and it’s a welcome one. The story revolves around two womenthe brash young Marianne (played by Kate Winslet from Heavenly Creatures) and her more sober and responsible older sister Eleanor (played by Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay)and the twists of fortune that accompany their quest to marry for love. It’s an engaging, amusing tale, told with grace and humor. For all its charms, though, the fundamental joy of Sense and Sensibility lies in its depiction of a world where broken promises and ill-chosen words have definite consequencesa world where justice favors the righteous.
Thompson’s script is sharp and witty, with a refreshingly ambiguous take on the central question of Austen’s novelwhether the codes of the upper class are repressive or necessary. To that end, she pays particular attention to the plight of Marianne, who tumbles headfirst into a reckless romance with the dashing Willoughby, only to find that her headstrong young man is more a slave to politesse than she had imagined. The scenes in which Marianne pursues Willoughby to London only to be coldly rebuffed at a society ball are extremely well written and downright heartbreaking, especially as filmed by Lee, who circles the ballroom with the keen eye of a gossip.
As for Lee, the Taiwanese director displays the same gift for humane comedy that he showed in Eat Drink Man Woman and scattered scenes of The Wedding Banquet. Shooting most of the film in medium shots rather than close-ups, he emphasizes the stillness of bodies as they sit in well-established positions. Using muted colors tinted with pink blush, he suggests the fevered emotions running just beneath the pale skin of Austen’s characters. He also does a splendid job of finding the important lines of dialogue and framing them elegantly, without a lot of cinematic gilding.
Ultimately, though, Lee’s most astute decision is to leave Sense and Sensibility to its actors, especially Emma Thompson as Eleanor Dashwood, the long-suffering do-right. Eleanor’s patient acceptance of her fate, including her seemingly unrequited desire for her beloved Edward Farris (played, with less twitch than usual, by the winning Hugh Grant), is the flip side of Marianne’s dilemma: By never speaking out of turn, Eleanor risks everything she wants for the sake of remaining proper. Thompson plays Eleanor with remarkable restraint, rarely allowing anything more than mild concern to cross her face. As a result, when she breaks down crying with the discovery that her hopes may finally be realized, the burst of emotion spreads an infectious warmth throughout the audience.
If anything slightly eclipses Sense and Sensibility, it’s the long shadow cast by the film Persuasion, a superior Jane Austen adaptation released a few months ago. The earlier film, directed by Roger Michell, had a simplicity and immediacy brought about through extensive use of hand-held cameras and the quiet, subtle work of its rather plain-looking actors. Sense and Sensibility, a more glamorous production, errs on the side of accessibilitymeaning that Thompson’s screenplay and Lee’s direction, while essentially faithful to the material, nonetheless settle occasionally for easy laughs at the expense of more meaningful observation. Persuasion, by contrast, is more felt than playedit’s easy to believe that the convolutions of Austen’s plot are being captured on camera as they happen, unmindful of the audience. Michell’s version of Austen is more suspenseful and challenging, with little needless prettifying.
Still, pretty things can be nice too, and there is certainly much pleasure to be found in Sense and Sensibility, particularly in its civility. It’s not by accident that Jane Austen rewards the characters who bide their time and behave appropriatelyat the very least, her heroines can always say they did the right thing. Even as Thompson and Lee spoof the logic of class-conscious manners, they can’t quite suppress their admiration of polite society’s well ordered mind-set.
Judging from their reaction, audiences also long for a time when, even if a man were preparing to utter something wholly inoffensive, he’d still preface the comment with, “Pardon my forwardness.” That simple acknowledgmentthat one’s words might have an impact, might ruffle, might even bruiseis one that we don’t hear enough these days. Sense and Sensibility, which has little to apologize for, apologizes anyway. And with that amenity out of the way, we gladly let it intrude.Noel Murray
The Moor, The Murkier
In his new adaptation of Othello, screenwriter-director Oliver Parker shears the play of enormous chunks of poetry in an attempt to make the material more cinematicwhich isn’t a terrible idea in itself, but it requires far more daring and imagination than Parker displays. In place of Shakespeare’s measured, endlessly insinuating verse, Parker substitutes ham-fisted symbolism and other “poetic” touches that support the narrowest possible interpretation of the play. (Just in case we’re a little slow on the uptake, the director helpfully cuts to black-and-white chess pieces in conflict.) It doesn’t help that the production looks tacky and cheap, with mediocre cinematography further undermined by costumes and sets out of a Roger Corman sword-and-sorcery flick.
Even the fine cast delivers uneven performances. In the title role, Laurence Fishburne, a terrific actor, gives line readings of varying uncertainty, speaking Shakespeare’s lines without speaking Othello’s thoughts. As the ill-fated Desdemona, the French actress Irene Jacob radiates innocence but never conveys the basis of her love for the worldly Moor. This, however, is largely the fault of director Parker, who barely permits any scenes that explore their courtship and marriage.
The exceptionand the only reason for watchingis Kenneth Branagh, who ingeniously portrays the diabolical Iago as everyone’s best friend, a robust, jocular, ingratiating companion whose eyes glisten with murderous mischief. Other screen and stage Iagos have signaled us hammily of their villainous intent; without his soliloquies, delivered only to us with chilling directness, Branagh’s Iago would indeed appear a noble and well-intentioned fellow. Branagh commands the screen so naturally, though, that he tips the balance of the play: He’s so captivating that we wind up perversely rooting for him to destroy these two bland naifs. His deviousness and craft are the only signs of life in a production with precious little of either.Jim Ridley
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