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BBC’s Sense and Sensibility

Miss Austen (and her books) have been hot topics these past couple of years – think “Pride and Prejudice” with Keira Knightley, “Becoming Jane” with Anne Hathaway, and “The Jane Austen Book Club” with its ensemble cast. Jane Austen, just like a little black dress, never goes out of style, it seems.

Recently, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) took a fresh look at the Austen classics, including “Sense and Sensibility”. This isn’t the first television production of the Austen classic: there were ones in 1981 and 1971. But most people will probably recall the 1995 film version directed by Ang Lee and starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet as the Dashwood sisters. I know that I loved it. And now I’ve found an new version to love with the BBC’s latest mini-series.

Andrew Davies, who wrote the wonderful “Bleak House” screenplay as well the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” mini-series (with Colin Firth as Mr. D’Arcy), also wrote this one. For those not in the know, “Sense and Sensibility” follows the fortunes of the Dashwood family, in particular sisters Elinor (Hattie Morahan) and Marianne (Charity Wakefield). English law of the time forbade the inheritance of property by females (one of the problems in “Pride and Prejudice”). Before the family patriarch dies, he asks his son John to take care of his stepmother and three half-sisters. However, wife Fanny wears the pants in John’s own family and with little effort persuades her husband that his father didn’t mean sharing the inheritance or the house. Luckily, Mrs. Dashwood’s rich cousin Sir John takes the now homeless family under his ample wing and offers the use of a cottage by his estate on the Devonshire coast.

Elinor is the “sense” of the title, practical to a fault and unwilling to show her true feelings. She and Edward Ferrars, the brother of her penny-pinching sister-in-law, fall quietly in love without so much as a kiss on the hand. But the Ferrars have other plans for the eldest son. Edward also has a few secrets of his own, as do most of the men the Dashwoods encounter in their new life, including Colonel Brandon, who has his eye on Marianne. She, however, thinks him too old for her.

Marianne’s romantic ideals are fulfilled when she twists her ankle while out walking and is carried home by the handsome (and young) Willoughby. Passionate and emotionally reckless, her attachment to Willoughby soon becomes the talk of Devonshire. But without a formal engagement, this is dangerous territory for a 19th century girl. When Willoughby abruptly leaves, without declaring his intentions, Marianne’s heart isn’t the only thing left in tatters, so is her reputation.

“Sense and Sensibility” hits all the marks, with costuming, settings and thankfully, age-appropriate actors. Excepting David Morrissey (who’s redeemed himself from the dreadful “Basic Instinct” sequel via this series and “The Other Boleyn Girl”), I knew none of the actors and this helped freshen the story for me. Also, a mini-series allows a fuller exploration of characters and their motivations, as well as scene additions such as the duel between Brandon and Willoughby, which is mentioned in the novel. Its one misstep is at the beginning: a soft focus seduction of an unknown girl by an unknown man. Who the couple are is explained later but this is an unnecessary emphasis on a certain subplot and feels very out of place. It’s more of a false start than anything else.

The two-disc DVD box is cunningly book-like in form. Extras include commentary from cast and crew, an interview with the writer and the producer, and a bio-pic of Jane Austen called “Miss Austen Regrets”.




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