It seems unlikely that adapting Jane Austen’s novels for the screen will ever go out of style. Luckily for fans, this is a very decent adaptation.
The DVD has been released as a made-for-TV three-part series, just as Austen’s original work was released for publication in three parts in 1811. The main feature clocks in at just under three hours, which is almost enough time to fit in the slightly condensed major plot points. Some details are abandoned and a few character traits are frankly invented, but for the most part the adaptation is true to Austen’s novel. Little mention is made through the film of time passing, which allows the reader to ignore the fast-forward pace on the whole, and since the overall running time is roughly equal to two feature films, even avid fans will be satisfied.
Filmed largely in Devonshire where three sisters, Elinor, Marianne and Margaret, relocate in diminished circumstances with their mother following the death of their wealthy father, Mr. Dashwood, the setting plays an enormous role. Visually, the valley that cradles the austere cottage where the Dashwoods settle is lush yet imposing; the family becomes extremely isolated from society while in residence. In the novel, the cottage at Barton Park, as the estate it is attached to is called, is not such a damp and lonely place as it is portrayed in the film. The ocean crashes close by, lending a sense of fragility to the landscape.
In Austen’s original work the sea is not granted such a presence. The author portrays the cottage in fact as a cheery and comfortable home, where the Dashwoods arrive in fine weather and are quickly pleased with the suitableness of Barton Cottage. The setting is quite dramatized for this film version, where the Dashwoods see the pounding ocean from their windows rather than the quaint hillside village of Barton, as in the novel.
A beautiful classical score emphasizes these features in the landscape. As their carriage rushes toward their unknown new life on the south coast of England, the music hurries along with it, making the fog through which they pass more uninviting. As the family explores their new home, the music disappears and only a chill wind moves through the cottage, accentuating the lack of warmth and comfort within.
The youngest, Margaret, is adept at keeping an eye out for anyone on horseback approaching down the narrow hillside pathway. Any unexpected visitor injects the domestic Dashwood lifestyle with some frenzied energy, as the newly impoverished family tear off the aprons they wear to protect their clothes, and hastily put away projects and implements in order to present a properly composed family tableau when the visitor enters. Overall, this adaptation has quite a sense of humor, which is an improvement on versions that take themselves too seriously.
For the most part, the actors in this Austen adaptation are little known; there is no Kate Winslet or Hugh Grant in sight. Yet the casting is excellent. The actors playing Elinor and Marianne, the two sisters and most central characters (often viewed as prototypes for the possibly better-known Jane and Elizabeth Bennet of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice) both have few major acting roles to their credit.
Elinor, played by Hattie Morahan, delivers her lines with an emphasis quite like that of Emma Thompson. (Oddly enough, Emma Thompson herself played the very same character in the popular 1995 film version of this story.) Colonel Brandon is portrayed by David Morrissey, who could be the long lost younger brother of Liam Neeson, and I doubt anyone will complain about that casting choice. The jovial Sir John Middleton is played by a familiar Mark Williams, who is surely most famous for his role as Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter films.
Dan Stevens plays Edward Ferrars, made less wimpy and more worthy by writer Andrew Davies largely through the charm of some very attractive blue eyes and the addition of a chopping-wood-in-the-rain scene that may remind some of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy taking a swim in a pond in his white undershirt in the 1995 version of Pride & Prejudice. In parts of Sense & Sensibility, Stevens plays the same wishy-washy nobleman character from his 2006 portrayal of Lord Holmwood in Dracula; fortunately a sense of humor has been gained and it turns out that Ferrars’ moodiness is not without reason.
The youngest Dashwood sister, ‘Meg’, is granted a status completely elevated from the novel; in this adaptation she becomes both the comic relief and the voice of feminism. When Fanny Dashwood, wife of the sisters’ half brother John, inheritor of their family home by default, learns of the impending move to Barton Cottage, she remarks, “A cottage in Devonshire! You will be very cozy… Upon my word, I quite envy you.” Meg impertinently replies, “Then you should go there, Aunt Fanny, and we will stay here at Norland.”
Fortunately, young actor Lucy Boynton is uniformly charming and pulls off her lines with aplomb. Meg is wise beyond her years whereas in the book she is given no such voice. Observing the difficulties her elder family members have in speaking their mind and acting with regard to their true feelings, she remarks to her mother, “Girls just sit and wait for things to happen.”
A more important character departure from the original version is Marianne’s willingness to admire and fall for the brooding Colonel Brandon after her first lover dashes her hopes. In both the book and the movie, Brandon is a practical, intelligent and thoughtful gentleman of good breeding. However, in the original, Marianne is paired off with Brandon almost as a consolation prize, his due after all the trouble he has taken with the Dashwood family, while in this film she ends up with her romantic happy ending after all her disappointment.
Rather than put cast and crew interviews or commentary, or even deleted scenes and such on the second disc to take up space, the first DVD includes a portrait-style photo gallery of the cast, and an interview session with producer Anne Pivcevic and writer Andrew Davies. Though the commentary from these two drags on slightly, they do provide some interesting points. For example, in casting the film they were determined to find actors close to the ages of the characters in the novel. (This follows the successful 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice with youthful actors like Keira Knightley.)
Also, the costume designer came from a fashion background but had never done much historical work; this explains the country elegance of the clothing, where the flowing gowns are made of practical and sturdy fabrics in rich (but not bright) colors; they complement the verdant scenery rather than distract from it. Finally, Pivcevic points out that the lushness of the Devonshire scenery had considerable help from the local weather patterns; a number of the more dramatic scenes in the film occur in the rain and just about all of it was naturally occurring.
Pivcevic and Davies also elaborate on the rather racy intro to the first segment of the feature presentation, where a young girl is seduced by a mystery man who is more substantially introduced later on. The candlelit camera work is careful not to reveal too much, and the short sequence should not deter viewers of any age. Some effort has been made to update the story for modern audiences, and the subtle result is definitely appropriate. A younger generation of potential Austen fans will be intrigued without being turned off by the historical conventions of lovers not being allowed to make physical contact.
The second disc is reserved for a feature-length BBC biopic of the author’s life, called Miss Austen Regrets, as well as a radio play entitled “Remembering Jane Austen”. In the biopic, Olivia Williams portrays Jane Austen as an adult, admired by her readers, but hindered by her family’s financial struggles, and constantly speaking her mind though her contemporaries find her unladylike and crass at times. Based on the author’s epistolary writings, Miss Austen Regrets adds real value to the DVD set. Overall, this is a set that any true Austen fan will want to add to their DVD collection.