Aside from the heavy breathing that opened last Sunday’s "Sense and Sensibility", so out of keeping with Jane Austen’s witty comedy, Masterpiece Classic’s final adaptation in "The Complete Jane Austen" has much to recommend it.
In the first half of Andrew Davies' screenplay, which aired on Sunday, we’re treated to many long shots of Barton Cottage against the breathtaking Devonshire coast. Barton Cottage becomes the modest home of a once wealthy widow who is cast out of Norland, the elegant country mansion estate belonging to her husband.
After introducing us to the calamity that befalls Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters after her husband dies, Davies leisurely explores two suitors’ interest in Marianne, the middle daughter. He also probes the theme suggested by the book’s title, embodied in the contrasts between Marianne and Elinor, her older sister.
Like the hapless family in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Dashwood and her children lose their home because English law in the early 19th century required that male heirs – even distant ones – inherit family property.
Mrs. Dashwood’s stepson John (Mark Gatiss) shows up to occupy Norland only days after his father’s death. He brings his selfish wife Fanny (Claire Skinner), who is eager to turn her husband’s relatives out into the cruel world as soon as possible. The bitter supper table scenes between the Miss Dashwoods and the estate’s new rightful owners are proverbial in Austen and well explored here.
There are some notable differences between director John Alexander’s treatment of 17-year-old Marianne’s misadventures with John Willoughby compared to that of Ang Lee’s 1995 film starring Emma Thompson (Elinor), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon), Kate Winslet (Marianne), and Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars). (By the way, Thompson wrote the screenplay for Lee’s film.)
Compared to the film, Davies takes ample time to explore Marianne’s polite indifference to the eligible 35-year-old Colonel Brandon, whom she feels is decidedly over the hill. At times, during Sunday’s part one, the intimacy between Marianne and Willoughby feels excessive.
As Elinor, Masterpiece’s Hattie Morahan may have trouble endearing herself to viewers who fell in love with Thompson’s masterful and softly comical portrayal in Lee’s film. (As the eldest Dashwood daughter, Elinor is practical, the antithesis of her giddy sister Marianne, and her common sense orientation helps her family survive their huge loss of income.)
On the other hand, Charity Wakefield’s Marianne, featured in Sunday’s PBS version, is less flighty and more believable as the heroine who gets carried away with her emotions. Actor David Morrisey gives us a Colonel Brandon determined not to allow any woman near him to suffer the wrongs done to his ward Eliza Williams. Mark Williams is excellent as Sir John Middleton, the gentleman who takes pity on his distant cousin, Mrs. Dashwood. The poor widow is also played well, infused with an elegant reserve by Janet McTeer. (Gemma Jones performed the same role in Lee’s film.)
Stay tuned for part two of Masterpiece Classic’s "Sense and Sensibility", which airs next Sunday, April 6, on PBS.