MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

A Dainty Dish

Ever since his Oscar-nominated Henry V adaptation, Kenneth Branagh has come up with a simple, effective recipe: Blend 3 parts English actors well-versed in all things “Bard” with 1 or 2 parts Hollywood, sprinkle the mixture liberally over one of Shakespeare‘s plays, lift the material out of its original temporal and local context to provide an updated meaning, and garnish it by casting yourself and, until the mid-1990s, (then-)wife Emma Thompson in opposite starring roles.

In Much Ado About Nothing, that formula works to near-perfection. A comedy of errors possibly written in one of the Bard‘s busiest years (1599) – although as usual, dating is a minor guessing game – Much Ado lives primarily from its timeless characters, making it an ideal object for transformation à la Branagh. Thus, renaissance Sicily becomes 19th century Tuscany (although the location’s name, Messina, remains unchanged); and the intrigues centering around the battle of the sexes between Signor Benedick of Padua (Branagh) and Lady Beatrice (Thompson), the niece of Messina’s governor Don Leonato (Richard Briers), and their love’s labors won – possibly the play’s originally-intended title*; and indeed, Benedick and Beatrice are a more liberated version of the earlier Love’s Labor’s Lost‘s Berowne and Rosaline – as well as the schemes surrounding the play’s other couple, Benedick’s friend Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) and Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Kate Beckinsale) become a light-hearted counterpoint to the more serious, politically charged intrigues of novels such as Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma and Scarlet and Black: As such, the military campaign from which Benedick and Claudio are returning with Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Denzel Washington) at the story’s beginning could easily be one associated with Italy’s 19th century struggle for nationhood.

While according to the play’s conception it is ostensibly the relationship between Hero and Claudio that drives the plot – as well as the plotting by Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John (Keanu Reeves) – Beatrice and Benedick are the more interesting couple; both sworn enemies of love, they are not kept apart by a scheming villain but by their own conceit, and are brought toghether by a ruse of Don Pedro’s (although even that wouldn’t have worked against their will: “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably,” Benedick once tells Beatrice.) And while Don John’s machinations create much heartbreak and drama once they have come into fruition, the story’s highlights are Benedick’s and Beatrice’s battles of wits; the sparks flying between them from their first scene to their last: even in front of the chapel, they still – although now primarily for their audience’s benefit – respond to each other’s question “Do not you love me?” with “No, no more than reason,” and when Benedick finally tells Beatrice he will have her, but only “for pity,” she tartly answers, “I would not deny you; – but … I yield upon great persuasion; and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption” – whereupon Benedick, most uncharacteristically, stops her with a kiss.

Branagh‘s and Thompson‘s chemistry was still unblemished at the time when this movie was made, and it works to optimum effect here.  And while every Kenneth Branagh movie is as much star vehicle for its creator as it is about the project itself, Benedick’s conversion from a man determined not to let love “transform [him] into an oyster” into a married man (because after all, “the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor I did not think I should live – till I were married”!) is a pure joy to watch. Emma Thompson‘s Beatrice, similarly, is an incredibly modern, independent young woman; and scenes like her advice to Hero not to blindly follow her father’s (Don Leonato’s) wishes in marrying but, if necessary, “make another courtesy and say, Father, as it please me” only enhance the play’s and her character’s timeless quality.

Yet, while the leading couple’s performances are the movie’s shining anchor pieces, there is much to enjoy in the remaining cast as well: Richard Briers’s Don Leonato, albeit more English country squire than Italian nobleman, is the kind of doting father that many a daughter would surely wish for; and what he may lack in Italian flavor is more than made up for in Brian Blessed’s Don Antonio, Leonato’s brother. Kate Beckinsale is a charming, innocent Hero and well-matched with Robert Sean Leonard’s Claudio (who after Dead Poets Society seemed virtually guaranteed to show up in a Shakespeare adaptation sooner or later); as generally, leaving aside the appropriateness of American accents in a movie like this, the Hollywood contingent acquits itself well. Washington’s, Leonard’s and Brier’s “Cupid” plot particularly is a delight (even if Washington might occasionally have gained extra mileage enunciation-wise). Keanu Reeves, cast against stereotype as Don John, is a bit too busy looking sullen to realize the role’s full sardonic potential: “melancholy,” in Shakespeare‘s times, after all was a generic term encompassing everything from madness to various saner forms of ill humor; and I wonder what – but for the generational difference – someone like Sir Ian McKellen might have done with that role. But as a self-described “plain-dealing villain” Reeves is certainly appropriately menacing. Michael Keaton’s Dogberry, finally, is partly brother-in-spirit to Beetlejuice, partly simply the eternal stupid officer; the play’s boorish comic relief and as such spot-on, delivering his many malaproprisms with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.

The cast is rounded out by several actors who might well have demanded larger roles but nevertheless look ideally matched for the parts they play, including Imelda Staunton and Phyllida Law as Hero’s gentlewomen Margaret and Ursula, Gerard Horan and Richard Clifford as Don John’s associates Borachio and Conrade, and Ben Elton as Dogberry’s “neighbor” Verges. (In addition, score composer Patrick Doyle stands in as minstrel Balthazar.) With minimal editing of the play’s original language, a set design making full use of the movie’s Tuscan setting, and lavish production values overall, this is a feast for the senses and, on the whole, an adaptation of which even the Bard himself, I think, would have approved.


* At least according to one theory.  Another theory has it that Love’s Labours Won is the title of a different, now lost play.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Renaissance Films / BBC / American Playhouse Theatrical Films (1993)
  • Director: Kenneth Branagh
  • Producers: Kenneth Branagh / David Parfitt / Stephen Evans
  • Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh
  • Based on a play by: William Shakespeare
  • Music: Patrick Doyle
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Roger Lanser
Cast
  • Kenneth Branagh: Benedick
  • Emma Thompson: Beatrice
  • Richard Briers: Leonato
  • Robert Sean Leonard: Claudio
  • Kate Beckinsale: Hero
  • Denzel Washington: Don Pedro
  • Keanu Reeves: Don John
  • Michael Keaton: Dogberry
  • Brian Blessed: Antonio
  • Imelda Staunton: Margaret
  • Phyllida Law: Ursula
  • Richard Clifford: Conrade
  • Gerard Horan: Borachio
  • Jimmy Yuill: Friar Francis
  • Ben Elton: Verges
  • Edward Jewesbury: Sexton
  • Patrick Doyle: Balthazar

 

Major Awards

London Critics Circle Film Awards (1993)
  • British Producer of the Year: Kenneth Branagh
Evening Standard British Film Awards (1993)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
    – Also for “The Remains of the Day.”

 

Favorite Quotes:

“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.”

“If [God] send me no husband, for the which blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening …”

“Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.”

“LEONATO: Well, then, go you into hell?
BEATRICE: No, but to the gate; and there will the devil meet me, like an old cuckold, with horns on his head, and say ‘Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven; here’s no place for you maids:’ so deliver I up my apes, and away to Saint Peter for the heavens; he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.”

“LEONATO: Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.
BEATRICE: Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none: Adam’s sons are my brethren; and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”

“DON PEDRO: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.
BEATRICE: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.
DON PEDRO: You have put him down, lady, you have put him down.
BEATRICE: So I would not he should do me, my lord, lest I should prove the mother of fools.”

“Yes, faith; it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please you.’ But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please me.”

“Wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig – and full as fantastical; the wedding, mannerly modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes repentance and with his bad legs falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.”

“Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites.”

“For it falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why, then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
While it was ours.”

“To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.”

 

Links

HOWARDS END

Howards EndHomecomings

Most of us connect the notion of “home” or “childhood home” with one particular place, that innocent paradise we have since had to give up and keep searching for forever after. In Ruth Wilcox’s world, Howards End is that place; the countryside house where she was born, where her family often returns to spend their vacations, and which, everyone assumes, will pass on to her children when she is dead.

And it is through Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave)’s eyes that we first see Howards End; approaching the house after an evening walk through her beloved meadow, her long dress trailing in the grass, as she goes nearer, we see the open windows letting out warm light from inside, and hear the voices and laughter from the family’s dinner table. And while Mrs. Wilcox returns to join her family’s company, two others are leaving the house and its serene world: Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) and Paul Wilcox, embarking on a passionate romance which is not even to survive the next morning – not before, however, Helen has informed her sister Margaret (Emma Thompson) that she and Paul are “in love,” and thus set in motion the first of a series of confusing and controversial meetings between their families.

While both families belong to the middle class, they are nevertheless separated by several layers of society and politics – the Wilcox, led by pater familias / businessman Henry (Anthony Hopkins), rich, conservative and without any sympathy whatsoever for those less fortunate than themselves (“It’s all part of the battle of life … The poor are poor; one is sorry for them, but there it is,” Henry Wilcox once comments); the Schlegels, on the other hand, with just enough income to lead a comfortable life, brought up by their Aunt Juley (Prunella Scales), supporting suffrage (women’s right to vote) and surrounding themselves with actors, “blue-stockings” (feminists), intellectuals and other members of the avantgarde. Further complexity is added when Helen brings to the Schlegel home Leonard Bast (Samuel West), a poor but idealistic young clerk who loves music, literature and astronomy – and with him, his working class wife Jacky (Nicola Duffett), the embarrassment of having to interact with her, and the even more embarrassing revelation she has in store for Henry Wilcox; eventually leaving her disillusioned husband to comment that “books aren’t real,” and that in fact they and music “are for the rich so they don’t feel bad after dinner.”

E.M. Forster‘s novel on which this movie is based is a masterpiece of social study and character study alike; with empathy and a fine eye for detail, Forster brings his protagonists and their environment to life, and James Ivory matches his accomplishment in this screen realization, finding the perfect cast and production design (Luciana Arrighi) to reproduce the novel’s Edwardian society; although he superstitiously declined the offer to film at Forster‘s boyhood home Rooks Nest, the model for the fictional Howards End. The movie brings together many of Britain’s best-known actors, all trained in the English school which, as Anthony Hopkins once explained, unlike Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting, is primarily based on restraint: there are no outbursts of emotion, self-control reigns supreme, and even a simple word like “yes” is reduced even further to “hmm,” leaving it to the actor’s intonation alone to convey the word’s (or sound’s) deeper meaning in a given context. And yet, vocal intonation, looks and little gestures often speak louder than dramatic actions ever could, and they are as essential to the movie’s sense of authenticity as are production design, cinematography (Tony Pierce-Roberts), soundtrack (Richard Robbins) and the selection of the movie’s non-scored music: excerpts from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a favorite with the “educated” Edwardian middle class, and pieces by period composers Andre Derain and Percy Grainger.

The story centers around Margaret (Meg) Schlegel, who is “filled with … a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encounter[s] in her path through life,” as Forster described her, and portrayed to perfection by Emma Thompson. Meg’s friendship with Ruth Wilcox brings the families back together after Helen’s near-scandalous episode with Paul; and the two women become so close that Ruth eventually decides to give Meg “something worth [her] friendship” – none other than Howards End, a wish that has her panicking family scramble ungentlemanly for every reason in the book to invalidate the codicil setting forth that bestowal, from its lacking date and signature to the testatrix’s state of mind, the ambiguity of the writing’s content, the question why Meg should want the house in the first place since she already has one, and the fact that the writing is only in pencil, which “never counts,” as Dolly, wife of the Wilcox’ elder son Charles is quick to point out; only to be reprimanded by her father in law “from out of his fortress” (Forster) not to “interfere with what you do not understand.” And so it is that Meg will only see the house (and be instantly mistaken for Ruth because she has “her way of walking around the house,” as the housekeeper explains) when she and her siblings have to look for a new home and Henry Wilcox, who has started to court her after Ruth’s death, suggests that the Schlegel’s furniture be temporarily stored there – a fateful decision. And while Meg and Henry slowly and painfully learn to adjust to each other, the complexity of their families’ relations, and their interactions with the Basts, finally come crashing down on them in a dramatic conclusion.

Howards End deservedly won 1992’s Academy Awards for Best Actress (Thompson), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction; and it was also nominated in the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Costume Design categories. Unfortunately, its subtle tones have recently been muted somewhat by the louder sounds now filling movie theaters. I for one, however, will take this sublime movie over any summer action flick anytime.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Merchant-Ivory (1992)
  • Director: James Ivory
  • Executive Producer: Paul Bradley
  • Producer: Ismail Merchant
  • Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  • Based on a novel by: E.M. Forster
  • Music: Richard Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts
  • Art Direction: John Ralph
  • Costume Design: Jenny Beavan & John Bright
  • Production Design: Luciana Arrighi
  • Set Decoration: Ian Whittaker
Cast
  • Emma Thompson: Margaret Schlegel
  • Helena Bonham Carter: Helen Schlegel
  • Anthony Hopkins: Henry J. Wilcox
  • Vanessa Redgrave: Ruth Wilcox
  • Prunella Scales: Aunt Juley
  • Samuel West: Leonard Bast
  • Nicola Duffett: Jacky Bast
  • Adrian Ross Magenty: Tibby Schlegel
  • Joseph Bennett: Paul Wilcox
  • James Wilby: Charles Wilcox
  • Jemma Redgrave: Evie Wilcox
  • Susie Lindeman: Dolly Wilcox

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Thompson
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium:
    Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker
Golden Globes (1992)
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama: Emma Thompson
National Board of Review Awards (1992)
  • Best Picture – English Language: Ismail Merchant
  • Best Director: James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
BAFTA Awards (1992)
  • Best Film: Ismail Merchant and James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Evening Standard British Film Awards (1992)
  • Best Film: James Ivory
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
    – Also for Peter’s Friends (1992).
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1992) (USA)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Boston Society of Film Critics AwardS (1992)
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
Cannes Film Festival (1992)
  • 45th Anniversary Prize: James Ivory

 

Links

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SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

“Is Love a Fancy or a Feeling?”

When Emma Thompson was approached with the suggestion to write a screenplay based on Jane Austen‘s first novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), she was somewhat doubtful because, as she explains on the DVD’s commentary track, she felt that other Austen works, like the more expressive Emma and Persuasion or the sardonic Pride and Prejudice (already the subject of several adaptations) would have been more suitable. Four years and 14 screenplay drafts later (the first, a 300-page handwritten dramatization of the novel’s every scene), Sense and Sensibility made its grand entrance into theaters worldwide and mesmerized audiences and critics alike, resulting in an Oscar for Thompson‘s screenplay and six further nominations (Best Picture, Leading Actress – Thompson –, Supporting Actress – Kate Winslet –, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score – for all of 20 minutes’ worth of composition – and Costume Design); and double honors as Best Picture and for Thompson‘s screenplay at the Golden Globes.

More than simple romances, Jane Austen‘s novels are delicately constructed pieces of social commentary, written from her rural Hampshire’s perspective. Mostly confined to life in her father’s parish, she was nevertheless well aware of early 19th century England’s society at large, and fiercely critical of the loss of morals and decorum she saw in its pre-industrial emergent city life. Moreover, experience and observation had made her acutely aware of the corsets forced onto women in fashion terms as much as by social norms, confining them to inactivity and complete dependency on their families’ and their (future) husbands’ money. And among this movie’s greatest strengths is the manner in which it maintains that underlying theme of Austen‘s writing and brings it to a contemporary audience’s attention. “You talk about feeling idle and useless: imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever,” Elinor Dashwood (Thompson) tells her almost-suitor Edward Ferrars, and when he replies that “our circumstances are therefore precisely the same,” she corrects him: “Except that you will inherit your fortune – we cannot even earn ours.” Jane Austen may not ever have phrased things in exactly the same way, but the screenplay’s lines here perfectly encapsulate one of the great underlying themes of virtually all of her books.

Rescuing much from the first draft dramatization of Austen‘s novel and amplifying where necessary, Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee (“who most unexplainably seems to understand me better than I understand myself,” Thompson said in her mock-Austen Golden Globe speech) produced a movie scrupulously faithful to what is known about Austen‘s world and at the same time incredibly modern, thus emphasizing the novel’s timeless quality. Paintings were consulted for the movie’s production design, and indeed, almost every camera frame – both landscapes and interiors – has the feeling of a picture by a period painter. Thompson cleverly uses poetry where the novel does not contain dialogue; and again, she does so in a manner entirely faithful to Austen‘s subtleties – most prominently in the joint recital of Shakespeare‘s Sonnet 116 by Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) and John Willoughby (Greg Wise), where an ever so slight inaccuracy in his rendition of a sonnet that he claims to love foreshadows his lacking sincerity.

Sense and Sensibility revolves around Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, their quest for a suitable husband, and the sisters’ relationship with each other. Emma Thompson maintains that she did not write the screenplay with herself as Elinor in mind and would not have been accepted for that role but for the success of her previous films (Howards End, The Remains of the Day); yet, it is hard to imagine who could have better played sensible Elinor: “effectual, … [possessing] a coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen [and thus considerably younger than Thompson], to be the counselor of her mother.” (Austen.) And real-life 19-year-old Kate Winslet embodies sensitive, artistic Marianne: “eager in everything; [without] moderation … generous, amiable, interesting: … everything but prudent.” (As an older actress was sought for that part, her agent presented her as 25.) An early scene in which Marianne recites Hartley Coleridge’s Sonnet VII (“Is love a fancy or a feeling? No. It is immortal as immaculate truth”) succinctly symbolizes the sisters’ relationship and their personalities, as Marianne mocks Elinor’s seemingly cool response to Edward’s budding affection: “Is love a fancy or a feeling … or a Ferrars?” (Mostly taken from the novel, the scene is embellished by the screenplay’s sole inexactitude, as Coleridge’s sonnets were only published 22 years later). Yet, when all her hope seems shattered, Elinor, in a rare outburst of emotion, rebukes her sister: “What do you know of my heart?” – only to instantly comfort her again when she sees that Marianne is equally distraught.

Indeed, the two sisters’ relationship is so crucial to the novel that in his 2012 deconstruction of Austen‘s writings, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi argues that the real love story with which the book is concerned is not at all that involving the sisters and their respective suitors but, rather, that arising from the growing mutual appreciation of Elinor and Marianne. And as Emma Thompson‘s screenplay shows – in and of itself, but even more so, when amplified by the diary she kept while the movie was produced – there is yet another love story going on here; that involving the novel’s screen adaptation: Not in the sense of a self-involved project existing primarily for its own sake, but in Emma Thompson‘s appreciation of Austen‘s novel and her dedication to its screen adaptation; a dedication shared by everybody else involved with the project.

Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman portray the sisters’ suitors Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon in a manner as seamlessly matching the novel’s characters as the two ladies’ portrayal, both leading men embodying to perfection the qualities Austen considered essential: simplicity, sincerity, and a firm sense of morality. Willoughby, on the other hand, while entering the story like the proverbial knight on a white horse who rescues the injured Marianne, does not live up to the high expectations he evokes; he causes Marianne to unacceptably abandon decorum and, just as he misspoke in that line from Shakespeare‘s sonnet, his love eventually “bends with the remover to remove.” Similarly, Lucy Steele (Imogen Stubbs), the near-stumbling block to Elinor’s happiness, ultimately proves driven by nothing but an “unceasing attention to self-interest … with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience” (Austen) and is, despite a fortuitous marriage, as marginalized as the Dashwoods’ greedy sister-in-law Fanny (Harriet Walter). Conversely, the boisterous Sir John Middleton and his garrulous mother-in-law, while annoying in their insensitivity, are essentially goodnatured; and marvelously portrayed in their flawed but warmhearted ways by Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs.

Sense and Sensibility was released at the height of the mid-1990s’ Jane Austen revival. Of all the movies of that era, and alongside 1996’s Emma (which has “Hollywood” written all over it) and the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (which finally established Colin Firth as the leading man in the U.S. that he had long been in Britain), Emma Thompson‘s Sense and Sensibility is one of those adaptations that future generations of moviegoers will likely turn to in years to come. And it is truly an experience not to be missed.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia Pictures (1995)
  • Director: Ang Lee
  • Executive Producer: Sydney Pollack
  • Screenplay: Emma Thompson
  • Based on a novel by: Jane Austen
  • Music: Patrick Doyle
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Coulter
Cast
  • Emma Thompson: Elinor Dashwood
  • Kate Winslet: Marianne Dashwood
  • Hugh Grant: Edward Ferrars
  • Alan Rickman: Colonel Brandon
  • Greg Wise:John Willoughby
  • Gemma Jones: Mrs. Dashwood
  • Emilie François: Margaret Dashwood
  • Elizabeth Spriggs: Mrs. Jennings
  • Robert Hardy: Sir John Middleton
  • Harriet Walter: Fanny Dashwood
  • James Fleet: John Dashwood
  • Tom Wilkinson: Mr. Dashwood
  • Imelda Staunton: Charlotte Palmer
  • Imogen Stubbs: Lucy Steele
  • Hugh Laurie: Mr. Palmer
  • Richard Lumsden: Robert Ferrars
  • Oliver Ford Davies: Doctor Harris

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Emma Thompson
Golden Globes (1996)
  • Best Motion Picture – Drama
  • Best Screenplay – Motion Picture: Emma Thompson
National Board of Review Awards (1995)
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director: Ang Lee
  • Best Actress: Emma Thompson
    – also for “Carrington”
Writers Guild of America Awards (1996)
  • Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Emma Thompson
Screen Actors Guild Awards (1996)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role: Kate Winslet
BAFTA Awards (1996)
  • Best Film: Lindsay Doran and Ang Lee
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Emma Thompson
  • Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role: Kate Winslet
Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Awards (1996)
  • Film – Screenplay: Emma Thompson
London Film Critics’ Circle Awards (1996)
  • British Screenwriter of the Year: “Sense and Sensibility”
Evening Standard British Film Awards (1997)
  • Best Actress: Kate Winslet
    – Also for “Jude” (1996).
  • Best Screenplay: Emma Thompson
    – Tied with John Hodge (“Trainspotting,” 1996).
German Film Awards (1997)
  • Best Foreign Film: Ang Lee, USA
Berlin International Film Festival (1996)
  • Golden Berlin Bear: Ang Lee
  • 2nd place – Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” Daily Newspaper: Ang Lee
Critics’ Choice Awards (1995)
  • Best Screenplay: – “Sense and Sensibility”
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1995)
  • Best Screenplay – “Sense and Sensibility”
New York Film Critics’ Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Screenplay – “Sense and Sensibility”
Boston Society of Film Critics AwardS (1995)
  • Best Screenplay – “Sense and Sensibility”

 

Links

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Emma Thompson: The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries – Bringing Jane Austen’s Novel to Film

“Is Love a Fancy or a Feeling?”

When Emma Thompson was approached with the suggestion to write a screenplay based on Jane Austen‘s first novel Sense and Sensibility (1811), she was somewhat doubtful because, as she explains on the DVD’s commentary track, she felt that other Austen works, like the more expressive Emma and Persuasion or the sardonic Pride and Prejudice (already the subject of several adaptations) would have been more suitable. Four years and 14 screenplay drafts later (the first, a 300-page handwritten dramatization of the novel’s every scene), Sense and Sensibility made its grand entrance into movie theaters worldwide and mesmerized audiences and critics alike, resulting in an Oscar for Thompson‘s screenplay and six further nominations (Best Picture, Leading Actress – Thompson –, Supporting Actress – Kate Winslet –, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Score – for all of 20 minutes’ worth of composition – and Costume Design); and double honors as Best Picture and for Thompson‘s screenplay at the Golden Globes.

More than simple romances, Jane Austen‘s novels are delicately constructed pieces of social commentary, written from her rural Hampshire perspective. Substantially confined to life in her father’s parish, she was nevertheless well aware of early 19th century England’s society at large, and fiercely critical of the loss of morals and decorum she saw in its pre-industrial emergent city life. Moreover, experience and observation had made her acutely aware of the corsets forced onto women in fashion terms as much as by social norms, confining them to inactivity and complete dependency on their families’ and their (future) husbands’ money. And among this screenplay’s greatest strengths is the manner in which it maintains that underlying theme of Austen‘s writing and brings it to a contemporary audience’s attention. “You talk about feeling idle and useless: imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever,” Elinor Dashwood tells her almost-suitor Edward Ferrars in Emma Thompson‘s screenplay, and when he replies that “our circumstances are therefore precisely the same,” she corrects him: “Except that you will inherit your fortune – we cannot even earn ours.” Jane Austen may not ever have phrased things in exactly the same way, but the screenplay’s lines here perfectly encapsulate one of the great underlying themes of virtually all of her books.

Rescuing much from the first draft dramatization of Austen‘s novel and amplifying where necessary, Emma Thompson and director Ang Lee (“who most unexplainably seems to understand me better than I understand myself,” Thompson said in her mock-Austen Golden Globe speech) produced a movie scrupulously faithful to what is known about Austen‘s world and at the same time incredibly modern, thus emphasizing the novel’s timeless quality. Paintings were consulted for the movie’s production design, and indeed, almost every camera frame – both landscapes and interiors – has the feeling of a picture by a period painter. Thompson cleverly uses poetry where the novel does not contain dialogue; and again, she does so in a manner entirely faithful to Austen‘s subtleties – most prominently in the joint recital of Shakespeare‘s Sonnet 116 by Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, where an ever so slight inaccuracy in his rendition of a sonnet that he claims to love foreshadows his lacking sincerity.

Sense and Sensibility revolves around Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, their quest for suitable husbands, and the sisters’ relationship with each other. Emma Thompson maintains that she did not write the screenplay with herself as Elinor in mind and would not have been accepted for that role but for the success of her previous films (Howards End, The Remains of the Day); yet, it is hard to imagine who could have better played sensible Elinor: “effectual, … [possessing] a coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen [and thus considerably younger than Thompson], to be the counselor of her mother.” (Austen.) And real-life 19-year-old Kate Winslet embodies sensitive, artistic Marianne: “eager in everything; [without] moderation … generous, amiable, interesting: … everything but prudent.”  An early scene in which Marianne recites Hartley Coleridge’s Sonnet VII (“Is love a fancy or a feeling? No. It is immortal as immaculate truth”) succinctly symbolizes the sisters’ relationship and their personalities, as Marianne mocks Elinor’s seemingly cool response to Edward’s budding affection: “Is love a fancy or a feeling … or a Ferrars?” (Mostly taken from the novel, the scene is embellished by the screenplay’s sole inexactitude, as Coleridge’s sonnets were only published 22 years after Austen‘s book). Yet, when all her hope seems shattered, Elinor, in a rare outburst of emotion, rebukes her sister: “What do you know of my heart?” – only to instantly comfort her again when she sees that Marianne is equally distraught.

Indeed, the two sisters’ relationship is so crucial to the novel that in his 2012 deconstruction of Austen‘s writings, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi argues that the real love story with which the book is concerned is not at all that involving the sisters and their respective suitors but, rather, that arising from the growing mutual appreciation of Elinor and Marianne. And as Emma Thompson‘s screenplay shows – in and of itself, but even more so, when amplified by the diary she kept while the movie was produced – there is yet another love story going on here; that involving the novel’s screen adaptation: Not in the sense of a self-involved project existing primarily for its own sake, but in Emma Thompson‘s appreciation of Austen‘s novel and her dedication to its screen adaptation; a dedication shared by everybody else involved with the project.

Thompson‘s Sense and Sensibility was released at the height of the mid-1990s’ Jane Austen revival. Of all the movies of that era, and alongside 1996’s Emma (which has “Hollywood” written all over it) and the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (which, to more than just one generation of fans, established Colin Firth as the embodiment of Mr. Darcy once and for all), Emma Thompson‘s Sense and Sensibility has long become one of the keystone Austen adaptations and will continue to be one of those that moviegoers will likely turn to in years to come. And it is truly an experience not to be missed.

 

Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood
(Jane Austen Centre, Bath; photo mine)

 

Favorite Quotes From the Diaries:

[Golden Globe acceptance speech in the style of Jane Austen‘s letters:]
“Four A.M. Having just returned from an evening at the Golden Spheres, which despite the inconveniences of heat, noise and overcrowding, was not without its pleasures. Thankfully, there were no dogs and no children. The gowns were middling. There was a good deal of shouting and behavior verging on the profligate, however, people were very free with their compliments and I made several new acquaintances. Miss Lindsay Doran, of Mirage, wherever that might be, who is largely responsible for my presence here, an enchanting companion about whom too much good cannot be said. Mr. Ang Lee, of foreign extraction, who most unexpectedly apppeared to understand me better than I undersand myself. Mr. James Schamus, a copiously erudite gentleman, and Miss Kate Winslet, beautiful in both countenance and spirit. Mr. Pat Doyle, a composer and a Scot, who displayed the kind of wild behavior one has lernt to expect from that race. Mr. Mark Canton, an energetic person with a ready smile who, as I understand it, owes me a vast deal of money. Miss Lisa Henson – a lovely girl, and Mr. Gareth Wigan – a lovely boy. I attempted to converse with Mr. Sydney Pollack, but his charms and wisdom are so generally pleasing that it proved impossible to get within ten feet of him. The room was full of interesting activitiy until eleven P.M. when it emptied rather suddenly. The lateness of the hour is due therefore not to the dance, but to the waiting, in a long line for horseless vehicles of unconscionable size. The modern world has clearly done nothing for transport.
P.S. Managed to avoid the hoyden Emily Tomkins who has purloined my creation and added things of her own. Nefarious creature.”
“With gratitude and apologies to Miss Austen, thank you.”

“Very nice lady served us drinks in hotel and was followed in by a cat. We all crooned at it. Alan [Rickman] to cat (very low and meaning it): ‘Fuck off.’ The nice lady didn’t turn a hair. The cat looked slightly embarrassed but stayed.”

“Got up this morning and could not find my glasses. Finally had to seek assistance. Kate [Winslet] found them inside a flower arrangement.”

“Paparazzi arrived for Hugh [Grant]. We had to stand under a tree and smile for them.
Photographer: ‘Hugh, could you look less — um –‘
Hugh: ‘Pained?”

“I ask Laurie if it’s possible to get trained fish. Lindsay says this is how we know I’ve never produced a movie.”

“Up 5.15 a.m. thinking, packpackpack. I appear to have accumulated more things. How did this happen? I haven’t shopped. Think my bath oils have bred.”

“Jane reminds us that God is in his heaven, the monarch on his throne and the pelvis firmly beneath the ribcage. Apparently rock and roll liberated the pelvis and it hasn’t been the same since.”

“I seem finally to have stopped worrying about Elinor, and age. She seems now to be perfectly normal — about twenty-five, a witty control freak. I like her but I can see how she would drive you mad. She’s just the sort of person you’d want to get drunk, just to make her giggling and silly.”

“We’ve hired the calmest babies in the world to play the hysterical Thomas. One did finally start to cry but stopped every time Chris [Newman (assistant director)] yelled ‘Action’. … Babies smiled all afternoon. Buddhist babies. They didn’t cry once. We, however, were all in tears by 5 p.m.”

[On period costume posture coaching:]
“We all stand about like parboiled spaghetti being straightened out.”

“Quick dinner with … Ang [Lee] and his wife Jane who’s visiting with the children for a while. We talked about her work as a microbiologist and the behaviour of the epithingalingie under the influence of cholesterol. She’s fascinated by cholesterol. Says it’s very beautiful: bright yellow. She says Ang is wholly uninterested. He has no idea what she does.
I check this out for myself. ‘What does Jane do?’ I ask.
‘Science,’ he says vaguely.”

“[Over breakfast] We discussed the ‘novelisation’ question. This is where the studio pay someone to novelise my script and sell it as Sense and Sensibility. I’ve said if this happens I will hang myself. Revolting notion. Beyond revolting.
Lindsay [Doran] said that the executive she had discussed it with had said ‘as a human being I agree with you — but …’ I laughed until my porridge was cool enough to swallow.”

“Hugh Laurie (playing Mr. Palmer) felt the line ‘Don’t palm all your abuses [of language upon me]’ was possibly too rude. ‘It’s in the book,’ I said. He didn’t hit me.”

“Our first point of discussion is the hunt. (…) My idea is to start the film with an image of the vixen locked out of her lair which has been plugged up. Her terror as she’s pursued across the country. This is a big deal. It means training a fox from birth or dressing up a dog to look like a fox. Or hiring David Attenbrorough, who probably knows a few foxes well enough to ask a favour.”

Sense and Sensibility signs litter Devon — arrows with S & S on. Whenever Ang [Lee] sees a B & B sign he thinks it’s for another movie.”

“Edward finds Elinor crying for her dead father, offers her his handkerchief and their love story commences. Ang [Lee] very anxious that we think about what we want to do. I’m very anxious not to do anything and certainly not to think about it.”

“Lindsay [Doran] goes round the table and introduces everyone — making it clear that I am present in the capacity of writer rather than actress, therefore no one has to be too nice to me.”

“Difficult for actors to extemporise in nineteenth-century English. Except for Robert Hardy and Elizabeth Spriggs, who speak that way anyway.”

“The fire alarm went off. Fire engines came racing; we all rushed out on the gravel drive, everyone thinking it was us. In fact, one of the elderly residents of Saltram had left a pan on the oven in her flat. Apparently this happens all the time. The tenant in question is appearing as an extra — playing one of the cooks.”

“Press conference [on the movie Carrington] yielded the usual crop of daftness. I’ve been asked if I related personally to Carrington’s tortured relationship with sex and replied that no, not really, I’d had a very pleasant time since I was fifteen. This elicited very disapproving copy from the Brits … No wonder people think we don’t have sex in England.”

“Shooting Willoughby carrying Marianne up the path. They did it four times. ‘Faster,’ said Ang [Lee]. They do it twice more. ‘Don’t pant so much,’ said Ang. Greg [Wise (playing Willoughby)], to his great credit, didn’t scream.”

“Shooting Willoughby carrying Marianne up the path. … Male strength — the desire to be cradled again? … I’d love someone to pick me up and carry me off. Frightening. Lindsay assures me I’d start to fidget after a while. She’s such a comfort.”

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