I was invited to blog on the new Andrew Davies-scripted adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, but first I should be forthright about one thing. This will come as no shock to anyone with whom I have ever had a Jane Austen-related conversation online or in person: I love Colonel Brandon. I love him just the way Jane Austen wrote him, and I have since my first reading of Sense and Sensibility, long before I ever saw an adaptation of the novel.
It is a necessary admission, for the portrayal of my favourite Austen hero can heavily influence my ability to enjoy any adaptation. More times than I would care to count, Colonel Brandon is described by various writers of introductions to the novel as impossibly dull, dour, dry, and worse. Some see his marriage to Marianne a 'punishment' for her and the ending to this story as a dark and unhappy one, for her, at least. Despite my conviction that they could not possibly have read the same novel I did, I am always left to wonder how anyone could fail to see Brandon as the man of sensibility he is and as I believe Jane Austen intended him to be. I require so much! I could never be happy with any portrayal of Colonel Brandon on film that did not match up to my ideal of him.
So it was not without a little trepidation that I approached my first viewing of this adaptation, particularly after reading and viewing interviews with Davies that Austen "didn't draw out her male characters enough" and that he didn't think she really understood them. Worse, he stated that " you can’t help feeling that the guys who get the girls just aren’t good enough in the book" and that "Colonel Brandon just seems old, serious, and not very glamorous. Jane Austen doesn’t really convince us that Marianne would move from being so crazy about the young Willoughby to suddenly being in love with Brandon."
Oh no. Old? He was thirty-five. Not glamourous? As opposed to, say, Willoughby who had to make a mercenary marriage because his glamourous lifestyle put him so far in debt? Suddenly? It took Marianne two years in the book to fully wake up to her future husband's merits.
And, of course, no matter how much I might dwell upon injustices, perceived or otherwise, to my favourite hero, it cannot be all about Colonel Brandon, who, in fact, does not even appear until more than halfway into the first of the three episodes that originally aired. He must also later disappear to attend to mysterious and urgent personal business, just as Jane Austen decreed that he should.
There was also much talk prior to the first broadcast episode that it would all begin with a scene of Willoughby seducing the young Eliza Williams. Chronologically, this would, of course, occur at about the same time as the opening of the book and when Mr. Dashwood is dying. I made no secret of the fact that I did not agree with this choice. In interviews, Davies calls Willoughby a 'sociopath' (plus a few more colourful adjectives). He wanted to put the story up front. However, I think it is important that the reader (or viewer) be swept up in Marianne's infatuation with Willoughby, and think him equal to what our " fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story ".
I worried that this, perhaps as much as any of my misgivings about how Colonel Brandon might be depicted, would spoil the viewing experience for me. Still, I didn't want to pass judgment, sight unseen, so I quelled my concerns as best I could before watching.
So. First impressions. The seduction scene is, indeed, up first, but you really can't tell it's Willoughby. Because of this, it seems oddly disconnected to the rest of the adaptation, especially since Eliza is not seen again until the third of the originally broadcast episodes.
The settings in any adaptation always draw a viewer's attention, and this is no exception. Norland, to me seemed very grand—much grander and more imposing than I had ever imagined it to be. When the avaricious Fanny Dashwood exults "At last!" as she first enters her new home as its mistress, one can almost imagine the degree to which she had been salivating at the very prospect. It does, however, serve to underline just how far down in the world Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were cast by the death of their husband and father.
People who know a great deal more about this than I do did not care for the Barton-by-the-seaside setting. The visits I have made to England do not give me enough of a sense of geographical accuracy to object on such a point.
Once the Dashwood ladies are settled at Barton cottage, frequent scenes are intercut of angular, craggy, jagged rocks jutting up at angles through turbulent crashing waves. There seems to be something wildly romantic about it; sensibility crashing up against sense, over and over again, if you will. It seems almost Turneresque, and this certainly seems deliberate when you think of Turner's famous painting of Tintern Abbey only to have Willoughby later reciting lines from Wordsworth's Lines written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.
I have feltThe Barton Cottage of this adaptation does not seem to answer the book's description of a tile-roofed house that "had not been built many years and was in good repair", nor does it seem that it ought to elicit Marianne's exclamation of "How romantic!" However, it does suit Austen's observation that "In comparison of Norland, it was poor and small indeed!" and Mr. Palmer's that the cottage is low-pitched with a crooked ceiling.
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air…
Allenham, on the inside at least, is appropriately "shockingly neglected". It suggests the appearance of wealth, grandeur and respectability on the outside that is in reality concealing something quite different—not unlike its heir apparent. On the other hand, we are left in anticipation of seeing Delaford until near the end, only to see that it is everything it is promised to be and more, just like its master.
But—enough about the settings. The cast, of course, is the more important part of an adaptation. Comparisons between this and the much-loved 1995 film are inescapable, and this group of actors seems, on the whole, younger and closer in age to Austen's characters. My admiration for Emma Thompson as an actress and as a screenwriter knows no bounds, but I knew as soon as I saw this that Hattie Morahan is the Elinor of my imagination. She is able to convey so much wordlessly, whether it is the expectation that Edward means to propose to her, confusion at his real intentions, devastation at Lucy Steele's revelation about their engagement, her longing for Edward, her distress at hearing Colonel Brandon's revelations about Willoughby and his ward or being stung with the injustice of Marianne's accusation "Happy Elinor! You have no idea of what I suffer!" This Elinor is composure on the outside, and yet the feelings that are quite as strong as Marianne's are right there too—governed, but nonetheless deeply felt.
Charity Wakefield's take on Marianne somehow made the character much more endearing to me than she has been before. I am not certain that Marianne would have been the one to utter lines such as "Oh Mother! Don't cry, dear!" or, after Willoughby leaves, "Forgive me, Mama—it was the sudden shock!" but her earnestness and her sweetness somehow make it all convincing. This Marianne is sure of her opinions, but full of contradictions. She is sincere when she laments to her mother "I am sure [Edward] only praises Elinor's drawings because they are hers!" and yet is just as obviously piqued when Colonel Brandon, admiring as a connoisseur and not a lover, makes a discerning observation about her pianoforte performance. She declares the colonel is "the only person in the neighbourhood with whom one can have an intelligent conversation", but, mortified by the speculation that Brandon is in love with her, runs out the back door of the cottage when he stops by to visit.
At times it seemed that this was an adaptation of the 1995 adaptation, particularly with respect to Margaret. As in the feature film, this Margaret seems younger than age thirteen and has a proclivity for lurking under furniture, or popping out of a perch on a tree or from behind stacks of books to deliver ingenuous comments about the unfairness of primogeniture and to express a wish to run off with gypsies or fight duels. Also like the film version, she says what the others cannot: telling Fanny that is she is so envious of their cottage that she should go there herself and let them stay at Norland, or pressing Edward to promise to come and see them soon.
Still, Margaret had been excluded from previous S&S adaptations, so her presence is welcome, as is that of a number of the other characters who were excluded from the 1995 film, including Lady Middleton and her children, young Henry Dashwood, Edward and Fanny's harridan of a mother Mrs. Ferrars, and especially Anne Steele. Granted, Lady Middleton here is even more insipid than she is in the book and is given very little to do or say, and much of the humour provided by Sir John, Mrs. Jennings and the Palmers is sadly lacking in this adaptation. Anne Steele (on left in image below) is the standout here, and made me laugh out loud more than once as she prattled on about smart beaux or delighted in how they "preened and ogled" at the assembly.
And now for the men. The first thing that struck me was that both Edward and Colonel Brandon were far better-looking than they ought to be, considering that Jane Austen described them both as being "not handsome". On the other hand Willoughby, that "person of uncommon attraction" whose "manly beauty and more than common gracefulness" inspired such general admiration in the book was not nearly attractive enough, in my opinion. For me, at least, it was something of a problem when Colonel Brandon was so clearly superior to Willoughby in every way, that you would wonder why Marianne would even give Willoughby a second glance. Even allowing for the possibility that my personal prejudices in favour of the colonel were colouring my opinion, I could not get over this impression.
True to his word, Andrew Davies did indeed do his best to make them more present and more alluring, and so we have a wet-shirted Edward chopping wood in the rain to vent his feelings, and Colonel Brandon at first riding over to Barton Cottage with gifts of music and books for Marianne, then shooting things to vent his own feelings. Colonel Brandon dances at parties. He grills Willoughby on whether his intentions towards Marianne are honourable. With a heartfelt "Allow me!" he catches Marianne as she faints after Willoughby jilts her, then levels a potent death stare at his rival.
Then they duel. The timing of the duel in the adaptation has been altered to make at seem as though it is over Willoughby's treatment of Marianne and not to punish Willoughby's conduct in the matter of getting Eliza pregnant and then abandoning her and their child. In the book, the duel took place months before Elinor and Marianne came to London. This duel is with swords and Colonel Brandon is formidable. At the end, Brandon holds his sword to Willoughby's throat as his rival cower, then shoves him away in disgust.
His voice breaks as he recounts his tragic romantic history to Elinor and confesses "I believe we were everything to each other" as he speaks of his lost love. This Brandon rides about in the rain searching for Marianne at the Palmers' estate, and is soldierly as he barks out orders to the servants to remove her clothing and warm her up.
All in all, by the time Marianne observes "he is the true romantic, I think!" we believe it. I always believed it in the book, but I must admit this is not something that everyone takes away from the novel. It was more than enough to satisfy the way I wished to see the colonel portrayed. Even though Marianne never did declare herself in love with him before their wedding in the book, I felt that it worked here.
This adaptation also includes other scenes that were missing from the 1995 film, most notably Willoughby's 'confession' to Elinor while Marianne convalesces at Cleveland. He comes off very badly indeed here, as he ought to, and while Marianne certainly never eavesdropped on the conversation in the book, we can well believe that she might have had the same combination of disillusionment and disgust on her face if she had done.
The dialogue, while not as funny as in the book, is clever. There are several scenes with subtext running through them. Sir John, who in the novel observes that there is no persuading his old friend, once he has put his mind to something instead remarks, " I don't think I've ever seen you aim a gun and miss." The metaphor is extended as they discuss how Willoughby is now a good shot, too, and when Sir John himself misses a shot, just before suggesting to the colonel that he set his sights on Elinor instead of Marianne.
Another example of subtext is when Mrs. Dashwood laments that Brandon would leave just when Marianne was beginning to take interest in him, to which Elinor observes that men who tame wild horses achieve this by being gentle, then walking away. We soon see Brandon with a falcon, the perfect combination of gentleness and strength. He is willing to let a wild thing go free and trust that it will fly to his arm when it is ready. Marianne, observing this, is suitably impressed. Now, perhaps, she understands that when the colonel earlier said her passionate pianoforte performance was 'original', it was truly meant as a compliment.
There is also an ongoing fruit motif, introduced when Willoughby presents Marianne with a handful of tiny wild strawberries, and extended when Margaret anticipates sampling Delaford's prized strawberries and peaches on the picnic. At last, when Marianne visits her future home, there are bowls overflowing with an abundance of ripe fruit. Everything at Delaford is welcoming and wonderful. There is no sign of neglect there, not even a speck of dust. When the colonel carries his smiling bride toward the flower-garlanded entrance of their home, we can well imagine that they will make each other happy there.
I have watched this through several times already, and I notice more to like about it with each subsequent viewing. I plan to watch it again this weekend. And again!
Watch Part One of Sense & Sensibility 2008 this Sunday on your local PBS station at 9 p.m.