The intention here was to write a review of the 2008 TV version of Sense and Sensibility. The problem with that is that it inevitably begs comparison with the 1995 Emma Thompson film version, which just happens to be one of my favourite films of all time, and by far my most-loved Jane Austen adaptation. So, for simplicity, I’ll combine reviews here to contrast the good and bad points of each.
One thing both got right was the casting of the main roles. The 1995 film had Kate Winslet as Marianne, Emma Thompson as Elinor, Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars, Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon and Greg Wise as Willoughby. The 2008 version had Charity Wakefield as Marianne, Hattie Morahan as Elinor, Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars, David Morrissey as Colonel Brandon and Dominic Cooper as Willoughby. They all looked and (mostly) sounded the part, in fact there were times when, if I closed my eyes, I couldn’t distinguish one actor from the other. David Morrissey’s flat northern vowels were inescapable, and Willoughby broke into Essex-speak in moments of high emotion, but since neither could be faulted for their acting otherwise, I forgive them. I have a slight personal preference for Hugh Grant’s bumbling Edward, and Charity Wakefield captured Marianne’s open-hearted affection and innocence to perfection, but really, there was very little to choose between them.
On the minor characters, the 1995 film won hands down. No one could better Robert Hardy’s Sir John Middleton, or Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie as the Palmers. It also made the excellent decision to prune away some of the less significant characters. Lady Middleton and her many children, Miss Steele and the Dashwoods’ young son all got the chop, and the story was the better for it.
The settings were both pretty good. Both had wonderful Norlands, and a suitably small, isolated and windswept Barton Cottage. If anything, the 2008 version made the cottage more rustic and therefore more of a contrast with Norland, with the peeling paintwork and low doorframes. It almost seemed a little too rustic, but let that pass. My only grumble was Mrs Jennings’ house in London which seemed somewhat too grand for a widow. Even in the early nineteenth century, housing in London was very expensive.
Where the two versions differ most is in the scripts. Emma Thompson’s captures all the wit and charm of the original. The scenes with Edward’s visit to Norland are delightful, with the discussion about the source of the Nile, and swabbing decks. It’s also particularly good with the subtext of Elinor’s desperate unhappiness, which the reader/viewer understands perfectly well, even when nothing explicit is said. My favourite part of the film is when Colonel Brandon offers a living to Edward and asks Elinor to tell him of it. The viewer feels for her as she tries to refuse, and then suffers the awkwardness of the meeting with Edward. Beautifully written, beautifully acted. The 2008 film skates over the words to show only the emotion bubbling below the surface, which works but loses all the subtlety of the original.
But then the whole angle of the 2008 version is towards ramping up the emotion. The camera frequently lingers on Marianne’s expressive face, and even gives Elinor moments of obvious distress (against her personality, but perhaps more in keeping with the visual age we live in). The scene where Willoughby takes Marianne to the house he hopes to inherit sums up in glorious style her love and trusting innocence as she lifts her face for that delicate kiss. And then a very telling moment, as Willoughby visibly draws back from thoughts of seduction and clearly decides that she’s too good for that and he must marry her instead. That was very nicely done.
One aspect the 2008 version got spectacularly right was in bringing to the fore Willoughby’s previous seduction of Colonel Brandon’s ward. In the book, this is kept as a background mystery until close to the end, by which time it has lost some of its impact. Here, the seduction is the first thing we see, and it makes Colonel Brandon’s later behaviour far more understandable and more poignant. I liked the duel, too, over-dramatic as it was.
Overall, I still prefer the 1995 Emma Thompson version, but the 2008 version, with its Andrew Davies script, is also very enjoyable to watch. And that stirring music is still running round in my head.