Monday, April 07, 2008

My Review of Masterpiece's Adaptation of Sense and Sensibility

Once again calling into question my Manly Man™ credentials, here is my review of the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

I thought it would be hard to top the Ang Lee / Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility that appeared a little over a decade ago (despite that adaptation's serious flaws, among which were Emma Thompson's being too old for the part of Elinor Dashwood and Hugh Grant's mealy-mouthed portrayal of Edward Ferrars), but the updated version that I watched over the last 2 weeks on PBS accomplishes that feat. Part of the reason is that a 2-part television adaptation has more time to work with the plot than a 2-hour screen adaptation. That extra couple of hours has made a world of difference, in my opinion.

Charity Wakefield's Marianne Dashwood is the equal of (if not better than) the Kate Winslet performance in that role - Miss Wakefield definitely has stolen the show. And while Hattie Morahan's Elinor Dashwood lacks much of the heart that Emma Thompson gave to the role, Miss Morahan is nevertheless superb, and surpasses Thompson in the emotional climax of the movie in which Edward confesses his devotion to her. Dan Stevens doesn't have to work too hard to outdo Hugh Grant in playing the part of Edward Ferrars. Notwithstanding the lowered expectations of the role brought on by Grant's forgettable 1995 performance, Mr. Stevens redeems the part of the put-upon Edward by his fine portrayal.

The hero of the piece is Colonel Brandon. Now, I was quite taken with Alan Rickman's stellar job in the role back in 1995. David Morrisey, however, manages to top it. Morrisey's more age-appropriate Brandon is much more believable as a possible match for the youthful Marianne than was Rickman's. [ED.: Colonel Brandon is supposed to be "on the wrong side of five-and-thirty" years old to Marianne's approximately 16 years. Alan Rickman was 50 when he played the role; David Morrisey is 43, but looks younger.]

The one glaring shortcoming compared to the 1995 screen adaptation is Dominic Cooper's Willoughby. Not that Mr. Cooper doesn't do a fine job in the role; in fact, he is very good. It's just that, in the eyes of many, the role of Willoughby will forever be linked to Greg Wise's performance on the big screen (much like every Darcy will forever suffer by comparison to the part as played by Colin Firth).

The supporting roles in the Masterpiece adaptation are variably better or not as good as those in the screen adaptation, but none really stand out as excelling or suffering by comparison, with one exception. The role of Mr. Palmer is given almost no play (only a few lines in a couple of brief appearances) in the Masterpiece version, whereas Hugh Laurie's portrayal of Mr. Palmer in 1995 stole every scene in which he appeared.

The Masterpiece screenplay was written by Andrew Davies, who also wrote the screenplay for the definitive BBC / A&E adaption of Pride and Prejudice, and slightly bests Emma Thompson's screenplay.

All in all, I prefer the updated television version of Sense and Sensibility to the 1995 screen adaptation, although I would highly recommend both.

Now that the entire PBS Masterpiece "Complete Jane Austen" series has run its full course, I'm going to compare the Masterpiece adaptations to other recent TV and big screen adaptations of Jane Austen's works:
The Masterpiece version, while very good, is not in my view as good as the 1995 adaptation starring Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds.

Northanger Abbey
The Masterpiece version is better in my view than the 1986 television adaptation of the novel.

Mansfield Park
The Masterpiece version is not nearly as good as the 1999 big screen adaption (despite that particular adaptation's HUGE liberties with the plot and character portrayals, which include slavery and miscegenation, as well as homoerotic and incestuous undertones).

Pride and Prejudice
The Masterpiece version is actually the 1995 BBC / A&E miniseries, which I have already described above as "definitive". All previous and subsequent adaptions of Miss Austen's most enduring novel will suffer by comparison. The 2005 big screen version starring Keira Knightly in the lead role of Elizabeth Bennet, while very good, doesn't even come close.

The Masterpiece version is actually the 1996 BBC / A&E adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale in the title role. It is a good production, but is lacking compared to the excellent 1996 big screen adaption starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Ewan McGregor.

Sense and Sensibility
See review above.

UPDATE #2 (8 April)
Darwin points out a version of Pride and Prejudice that I failed to mention in my comparison - the 1980 BBC adaptation. It is a very fine version that is perhaps closer to the spirit of the novel than any other.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, the production values of the 1995 adaptation make it superlative. And Jennifer Ehle's Elizabeth and Colin Firth's Darcy, while perhaps not as true to Austen's characters as they might have been, were iconic portrayals.

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At 4/08/2008 4:58 AM, Blogger CourageMan said...

What is all this PBS British literary costumey stuff, women in hats and men in cravats ... that stuff is for poofs and fairies.

At 4/08/2008 7:14 AM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

Yeah, tell me about it. Or maybe it takes a real manly man to admit he has a thing for Jane Austen.


At 4/08/2008 10:32 AM, Blogger Darwin said...

I must be in the small minority in finding the 80s BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice far superior to the 1995, Colin Firth adaptation. I massively preferred most of the actors in the older version, though they clearly had far less money to blow on production values.

At 4/08/2008 11:19 AM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...


The 1980 BBC version is a very good one, and perhaps closer to the spirit of the book than any other.

But I think you hit on where it falls short, in my view, of the 1995 BBC/A&E version - the budget. In my opinion, the production values of the 1995 adaptation make it superlative.

And Ehle's Elizabeth and Firth's Darcy, while perhaps not as true to Austen's characters as they might have been, were iconic portrayals. And "the look" they give to one another in the parlor scene at Pemberly is unforgettable. It's funny that on our first date, Sarah and I, while raving about the miniseries, simultaneously mentioned that scene as our favorite. A couple of dates later, we watched all 6 hours in one sitting.

Maybe that's why I rate that version as my favorite.


At 4/08/2008 8:23 PM, Blogger Anita Moore said...

Morrisey's more age-appropriate Brandon is much more believable as a possible match for the youthful Marianne than was Rickman's.

I hate to have to remind you, Jay, but in the novel, Col. Brandon was in fact quite a bit older than Marianne. Jane Austen said so explicitly, and it is necessary in any case for his prior entanglement before being packed off to the army to be plausible.

At 4/08/2008 9:50 PM, Blogger Jay Anderson said...

Brandon was 20 years Marianne's senior in the Masterpiece version - he was 35 to her 15 or 16. The problem with Rickman's portrayal was that he was probably 15 years too old for the role.


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