SISTERS (2015) by B. Roche

With the Oscar nominations on the verge of being announced, there were a lot of award-centric options available for our first movie night of 2016.  But sometimes you’ve got to laugh.  

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Viper In My Bosom: Thoughts on SENSE AND SENSIBILITY  (Which I Borrowed From Bren) by B. Roche

I confess I'm a bit jealous of my earlier thoughts on Pride and Prejudice.  I expressed myself fairly succinctly in that case, yet for Sense and Sensibility I run my mouth off (see below).

In some way I am paying off the time spent.   I watched Sense and Sensibility four-point-something times.  Once regular, then both commentaries, then a final viewing in reverse chapter order. (And some chapters twice again; initially I just wanted to confirm just who got married during the ending, but then I kept hitting the previous chapter until my Sunday was gone and Tom Wilkinson died yet again.)

I mention my numerous viewings not for a gold star but to convey that it was a worthy repetition.  Sense and Sensibility lives in the details and creates such full lives for its characters that I had much to savor, and old friends to keep revisiting. 

At first sight the characters all fit to type, and go through the motions we would expect.  But as the movie progresses, the complexity of the characters, and the impossibility of their social circumstances, become clear.  Everyone here is either miserable or naive.  They're miserable out of obligation to their circumstances or because they are unable to express their true feelings, or miserable because they don't have money, or try to keep their money.  The naive ones just haven't experienced enough to have good sense and be miserable.  In the story's vocabulary, Marianne has sensibility but will lose it; its not that Elinor inherently has good sense over emotionality, she has just learned how the world works.  Even Willoughby, who a lesser film would portray as a cad awaiting comeuppance, is truly saddened by his need for money which forces him to throw Marianne over.  Almost everyone is a commodity to everyone else. Marianne and Elinor ultimately both marry for love, but they had to get married either way.

While I don't want to take focus away from the Dashwood sisters, On the basis of all two of the Austen adaptations I've seen, it's interesting that there is “type” of Austen man.  He’s honorable, shy,chivalrous (all to a fault), mostly well spoken with optional wit, boring at times, and a total dork.  That the Farrars and Brandons of this world win the heroines’ hearts by sticking in and showing their better sides rather than “coming out of their shell” as they would in, wait for it, a lesser movie, speaks to what is truly valuable in a partner and in oneself.  Whatever their challenges, Elinor and Marianne hold themselves in high esteem and seek partners who treat them in kind, and inspire their own best regard.

The DVD commentaries were very entertaining and helpful.  It's clear that Ang Lee and Emma Thompson are co-authors of the movie.  The structure of the film is all Thompson's, and apparently much of the book was changed.  This movie is much visually simpler than Lee's subsequent films.  While this may have been an artistic choice to some degree, it's enforced by the historic houses in which the film was shot; Lee explains on his commentary how limited they were in their movements, and were forced to shoot around certain immoveable antiques.  Intentional or not, the visual style highlights the actors performance and allows us to see how body language impacts a scene.  I'd heard stories before about Lee's taskmaster directing style; He and his producer James Schamus, along with Thompson and the original producer on their commentary, drop a lot of his weirdly specific orders, like, "don't be old", "act only with your finger" and "speak American with Chinese characters" (or something; maybe that's from the making of *Ice Storm*?), his insisted on only seeing the actor's profile in some scenes, and would only cast people of a certain height or body type for some roles.

However weird some of his choices may seem, Lee's directing style, and the excellent casting, pays off.  That I recall, Kate Winslet has only been "wild"-ish one other time, in *Eternal Sunshine*, so it was great to see her be the more emotional character.  And I feel like Emma Thompson hasn't been a romantic lead in forever (since this movie?).  Though a sacrifice it would be, I would have been willing to help her through her brokenheartedness.

Alan Rickman is both unusually effective and a little troubling as Col. Brandon.  He brings an air of haunted maturity to the role, and the movie is careful to show him besting Willoughby in many scenes, so the whole "it was you all along" aspect works in the end.  I suppose, too, that he does his best with the tan and blond hair the movie grants him.  Yet Rickman brings an air of inadvertent menace to the role that almost tips the cart a couple of times; specifically the scene where he appears suddenly behind Marianne and cuts the reed she's working on with his pocket knife, then wordlessly slips away, and when the Colonel is talking with Elinor about Marianne's innocent nature: "I knew a lady very like your sister - the same impulsive sweetness of temper - who was forced into, as you put it, a better acquaintance with the world.  The result was only ruination and despair.  Do not desire it, Miss Dashwood."  (er, McClane.) (While the appropriate contemporary Rickman reference would  "Mr. Potter", I must live my truth.)  All that makes for a very slightly uneasy sell when Elinor later describes Brandon as "The kindest and best of men."

In my many viewings, I actually came to appreciate the supporting cast much more than the main group:

Mrs. Jennings - she reminds me of five or so of my aunts, and has a lot of great lines (like this  throwaway to her butler: "I don't want to hear another word about the ham bone, Pigeon.  You and Cartwright must sort that out between you.").

Mrs. Dashwood - you can see the girl she once was and in many ways still is; it's clear why Elinor has had to step in and be the adult of the family.

Mrs. Palmer - Imelda Staunton nails it as one of those people who is Herself All The Time.

Mr. Palmer - Hugh Laurie is great as another prototypical Austen man. He's impeccably dry and hilarious as the long-suffering audience to Mrs. Palmer's Mrs. Palmerness, but when the story needs him to, he effortlessly shifts gears to strong and earnest.  It's weird hearing Laurie use his actual accent.

Lucy Steele - Imogen Stubbs brings a kittenishness to this passive-aggressive character; I could see myself falling for her and not realizing what I'd done until it was too late.

Fanny Dashwood - I felt Harriet Walter was deliberately costumed to reflect Maleficent from *Sleeping Beauty*.  Regardless she's a great villain.  She even does some great finger acting (Lee specifies in the commentary that he wanted her to be stone faced, and act only with her finger, rubbing worriedly on the window frame in the scene where she lays the diss on Mrs. Dashwood.)

John Dashwood - This guy makes zero impression, which is perfect; Fanny needs to completely overshadow him.  You have to be good to this invisible.

Robert Dashwood - from the moment he's introduced, he exudes the casually dickish air of a guy who always gets what he wants.  Thus, he's perfect for Lucy.  An off-screen "transfer of affection" could have been a lame deus ex machina had it not been for perfect casting.

Margaret - This kid is spotless as an exposition machine. As the commentaries point out, the younger sister said relatively little in the novel, and they took advantage of the vacancy to have a character who asked questions re: period customs so as to explain same to the audience.

Pigeon - Mrs. Jenning's butler has only a few moments, but the best is his late-night answering of the bell to receive Willoughby's letter.  Pigeon's wig is skewed and his mug is twisted into a resentful raspberry.  The actor expresses the frustration of the whole service class essentially without dialogue.

The dialogue that *is* in the film sparkles; per the commentary most of it (like, with the exception of only 5-6 lines!) doesn't come from Jane Austen at all.  Again, all Thompson.  Not only that, but so the cast wouldn't need to improvise in period dialect, Thompson wrote a bunch of random lines for whoever to use whenever.  (One such example from the commentary, "Pray get the stuff," unfortunately did not make the cut.) Such as:

  • "Give me an occupation, Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad."
  • "Do not fret, my dear.  I have been told that this good weather is keeping many of our sportsmen in the country at present, but the frost will soon drive them to town.  Depend on it."
  • "Oh, please don't say anything important!"
  • "I believe I know what key you will sing in.  "F" Major!"
  • "Is love a fancy, or a feeling, or a Farrars?"
  • "Does she care for olives?"
  • "If Colonel Brandon is infirm then I am at death's door."
  • "It is a miracle your life as extended this far."
  • "It's folly to linger in this manner.  I shall not torment myself further!"
  • "He's the sort of man that everyone speaks well of, but no one remembers to talk to."
  • The whole meet-cute/Atlas/Nile discussion.
  • "What care I for colds when there is such a man?"
    • You will care very much when your nose swells up."
    • "You are right.  Help me, Elinor."
  • [See post title]

And as Howard Hawks always said, a great movie needs three great scenes and no bad ones.  I counted at least five:

  • Fanny and John argue over the inheritance to the Dashwoods, in series of quick cut scenes, to the point they're giving them almost nothing.
  • Edward's intro/the Atlas.
  • The pair of scenes with Willoughby in the Dashwood Cottage (he brings in Marianne, comes back the next day. This is great because the idea of whether he upstages Brandon or vice verse is entirely a matter of personal audience preference; Brandon is more concerned, more gentlemanly, and brings nicer flowers)
  • Edward and Elinor's "break up" in which nothing is said, but everything is meant.  They don't even touch or move toward one another.  I watched this three times during that fourth viewing.
  • Edward's surprise return/revelation that Lucy left him for his brother Robert.

Also included on the DVD is Emma Thompson's screenplay acceptance speech from the 1995 Golden Globes.  She reads a letter as if it were from Jane Austen herself about the film and the whole award season phenomenon.  Thompson perfectly captured an ancient, foreign voice and used to savagely skewer Hollywood and the modern world in general.  So clever, it shames almost all other such speeches - Like Sense and Sensibility itself, which shames all other period romances.