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DVD Review: Sense and Sensibility

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Jane Austen continues to be popular nearly 200 years after her passing in large part because of the wonderful characters she created. Her six novels have served as the basis for numerous television and film adaptations and each has its own legion of devoted fans. In fact, if you wanted to start an argument among Austen fans all you would have to do is pick one of the books at random and suggest that one was the best over all the others.

In the same way, Austen fans tend to disagree over which of the film adaptations of a particular novel is the best. The newest version of Sense and Sensibility produced by the BBC won't necessarily settle any arguments but it will certainly fuel a lot of discussion.

The story revolves around two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. At the opening of the story, their father has suddenly died, forcing them to find another home. In the early 19th century women typically did not inherit real estate and so the home would pass to the next male relative, so the Dashwoods must find a new place to call home. As often was the case, the two sisters look to marriage as a way to resolve the issue of where to live. Marriage was often a more practical than emotional consideration. Both sisters meet men who interest them but how their respective relationships develop are directly related to each sister's own emotional issues.

Elinor is more reserved and therefore the "sensible" of the sisters. She is introverted to the brink of being emotionally crippled. She can't seem to reveal her true feelings and some of her relational missteps are the direct result of her inability to express her emotions. In addition, she wants to marry for love as opposed to practical reasons (a sentiment that Austen herself shared). In order to secure her future, she must overcome her reticence to express herself and be willing to let others know how she feels.

Marianne, by contrast, is the far more emotional of the sisters. Where Elinor may be seen as too sensible, Marianne's fault is that she lacks sensibility. She is far too easily swayed by her feelings and as result makes decisions that have disastrous results (even to the point of putting her own life in peril).

As with all of Austen's novels, the main characters each have a major personality flaw that they must overcome in order to find true love. Such development in character takes time to unfold and so to do justice to the original novel it's important to take time to discover these characters.

Thankfully, the filmmakers took the time to really accurately capture the essence of the novel. We gradually see changes in both heroines as each learns painful lessons from their individual shortcomings and overcomes their mistakes to be able to achieve true love.

The selection of Andrew Davies as the screenwriter was a stroke of genius. With his long list of previous literary adaptations (including the beloved 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice) he seems to understand better than any screenwriter working today what it takes to bring Austen to the screen.

The casting selections were also excellent as Hattie Morahan (Elinor) and Charity Wakefield (Marianne) capture perfectly not only the essence of each of the individual characters but the relationship between the sisters. It also helps that both are fairly close to the age of each of the sisters in the book which is something that was missing from prior adaptations.

The other characters are also well cast. Although the names of the actors and actresses would be unfamiliar to anyone who is not an aficionado of British drama, each brings a high quality performance to the production.

But the real magic to this production is the fact it's the BBC producing this film. The BBC has an affinity for period drama like no other production company. If anyone can adapt Austen and do it justice, they can. No expense was spared in making this production as authentic as possible down to the costumes and filming locations.

An added bonus to this DVD set is a second disc containing the biopic Miss Austen Regrets. Drawing largely on the few surviving letters of Austen's, the film portrays the last years of Austen's life after she has become a successful author.

Because Austen published anonymously during her lifetime (female novelists were not very common in her day), very little biographical information was collected about her while she was alive. Most of what biographers have relied upon were her letters. However, Austen's sister Cassandra burned many of them after Jane's death. It has been speculated she did this to protect Jane's memory as she feared that the letters would have given the reader an unflattering picture of her.

The film itself is another fine production with Olivia Williams portraying Jane Austen. She did a wonderful job of capturing the essence of Austen's personality (at least based on what little we know about her). However, as one Austen fan recently told me, "it's hard to see anyone portray Jane". Given the level of devotion among Austen fans, it probably is difficult to imagine anyone portraying her. Still, Ms. Williams does a fine job and the film itself sheds light on who she was (or at least who we think she was). This is a far more accurate film than 2007's Becoming Jane which seemed to want to give the viewer a more Hollywood-type story than existed in reality.

Sense and Sensibility (along with Pride and Prejudice) is one of the novels most often cited as a favorite of Austen's novels among her fans. The film adaptations of each novel have helped to enhance its standing among its fans. This version of Sense and Sensibility will not only enhance the novel's standing among its fans but hopefully encourage others to read the book who might not have done so before. They won't be disappointed.

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