Review: ‘Sense And Sensibility’ (1995, 2008)

Posted May 5, 2017 by Mary Kingswood in Review / 10 Comments

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.


10 responses to “Review: ‘Sense And Sensibility’ (1995, 2008)

  1. Aquaria

    I’ve seen the three main versions, and the 1995 is still my favorite for, well, everything.

    I even think Emma Thompson’s obvious age plays well, considering all the nasty remarks her brother, his wife, and the nasty brother-in-law make about her age, more than once. Modern audiences wouldn’t find that believable about someone who looked closer to the same age as Marianne. 22 and not married? Who cares? But they’d believe it about someone who looks obviously older, as Emma Thompson did to Kate Winslett.

    The other thing that made the 1995 version work better than the others was the sheer chemistry between Thompson and Winslett. They best portrayed the genuine love the Dashwood sisters had for each other. They were so good at it that it was the first time in my entire life that I wished I’d had a sister, if we could be like Elinor and Marianne. I sorta felt like having a sister wouldn’t have been so bad after multiple versions of Eliza and Jane in P&P, but I WANTED a sister after S&S.

    The sister bond in the 1995 S&S is why it will always be my favorite version.

    Well, that and how awesome Alan Rickman was as Colonel Brandon.

  2. Ealasaid

    Now that I’ve seen both versions, I agree with you about the minor characters of the 1995 film. They were more memorable and entertaining. I have mixed feelings about the role of Elinor. Emma Thompson’s acting is stellar but to me she looks very obviously to be a woman in her 30s and that made her seem somewhat out of place. I also liked the performance of Hattie Morahan as Elinor. The acting and settings in both productions are wonderful, but the actor playing Willoughby in 1995 was more believable to me as the type of man who could easily fool people as to his true character.

    • Mary Kingswood

      Yes, a lot of people felt Emma Thompson was way too old for the role of Elinor, which she was, of course, but I enjoy her acting so much, it never bothered me. Agree about Willoughby.

      • Ealasaid

        There were definitely aspects of Emma Thompson’s performance that I really appreciated. There was a touch of cool steel in some of her exchanges with Lucy and Marianne, and I got a true sense at times of her underlying pain. I was less impressed by Hugh Grant’s performance. In the London scenes especially he struck me more as being in uncomfortable clothing than as somebody suffering emotionally. But once I had seen both versions it occurred to me that Edward is a difficult role for anyone to get his teeth into. Overall, I think I prefer the 2008 production but I almost wish I could combine my favorite elements of writing and scene selection from both into one.

        • Mary Kingswood

          Yes, Edward is a nightmare of a role. He has to be a sympathetic character, yet he actually behaves very badly towards Elinor at the start, when he knows he’s betrothed to another woman, and in those days a betrothal was a binding agreement, in honour if not in law. He should have removed himself from Elinor’s company at an early stage. I think, however, that Hugh Grant’s portrayal works, as a young man very much drifting along and allowing himself to be drawn into difficult situations. I know men very much like that, who find inertia easier than taking decisive action.

          • Ealasaid

            That’s a good observation. I’m glad that both versions are enjoyable enough to re-watch.

  3. Ealasaid

    After reading your review I decided to watch the 2008 version first. I really enjoyed it. I thought the acting was very good. My only silly problem with it was that I found the actor playing Willoughby less attractive and charismatic than the actor playing Brandon, and that made it difficult to believe Marianne would prefer Willoughby, which is totally subjective. The duel was awesome.

  4. Bonni Bobb

    You did not comment on my favorite version, the 1981 television version with Irene Richard as Elinor and Tracey Child’s as Marianne. Perhaps it is my favorite because I saw that version first Although they left Margarette out of the story I felt they did a fairly true adaptation of the book. Although the Emma Thompson version has an splendid cast, I felt too many of the scenes were changed to showcase Emma Thompson’s talents instead of remaining true to the balance between Eleanor and Marianne that the book shows. As you say nothing compares to a Jane Austen novel so perhaps I am being too demanding and requiring strict but here it’s to the novel. Nothing ever really matches your imagination while reading one of her novels. I must confess I have never seen the other version you mention but perhaps now I will seek it out and compare on my own.

    I would also like to thank you for your novels. It is quite refreshing to find good regency novels that do not contain step-by-step explicit sexual scenes but focus instead on the storyline and the people who populate it.

    • Mary Kingswood

      Sorry for the delay in approving your post, but I’ve been out of signal range for days (I know – hard to believe in this day and age!).

      I’ll have to look up the 1981 version. I find it fascinating the differences between the various versions, and how they approach the problem of bringing a book to the screen. I agree that the Emma Thompson version is very Emma-Thompson-oriented, but I love her acting, and some of the other actors in that version, so I forgive her!

      Thank you for your thoughts on my own books. My inspiration is Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, both of whom wrote compelling stories without a hint of sex in them, so that is what I try to do, although I would never compare my writing with their great talents, of course.