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200 years after Jane Austen died, the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility still sparkles

“To die for love? What could be more glorious?”

Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility
Two sides of the same coin.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for July 16 through 22 is Sense and Sensibility (1995), which is available to digitally rent on YouTube, Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play.

Jane Austen died 200 years ago, on July 18, 1817. She left behind six major novels, some unfinished works, and notebooks of stories she wrote in her youth, and has long inspired scholars, writers, filmmakers, playwrights, and hordes of undying fans.

Every Austen devotee has their favorite film adaptation, the one they will defend against all others. The picks range wildly, from more conventional and relatively faithful costume dramas like the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries to the looser adaptations, which include Clueless (based on Emma), Metropolitan (based on Mansfield Park), Bridget Jones’s Diary (based on Pride and Prejudice, very loosely indeed), and Bride and Prejudice (a Bollywood version of Pride and Prejudice).

My personal favorite, though, is the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility. Ang Lee may have directed the film, but most fans agree that it owes its brilliance to Emma Thompson, who wrote the film and stars in it too, alongside Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman.

Greg Wise and Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility
Greg Wise and Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility.

Thompson worked on the screenplay — her first — on and off for five years. What she crafted is faithful to Austen’s novel both in spirit and in plot, telling the story of the Dashwood family, which is plunged into genteel poverty when Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) dies. He leaves behind his well-meaning but coddled wife (Gemma Jones) and three unmarried daughters: Elinor (Thompson), Marianne (Winslet), and teenaged Margaret (Emilie François).

The late Mr. Dashwood has a son from his first marriage, John (James Fleet), who is inclined to help his half-sisters, but John’s wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) is having none of it, and the Dashwood women are sent off to live in a country cottage situated on a more distant relative’s estate. There, the free-spirited Marianne attracts the attention of both the steady Colonel Brandon (Rickman) and the more dashing — and dangerous — Willoughby (Greg Wise). Meanwhile, Elinor pines quietly for Edward Ferrars (Grant), the awkward but adorable brother of Fanny.

Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant in Sense and Sensibility
Um, swoon.

What makes Sense and Sensibility so great is that it doesn’t just step through the paces of the plot as outlined by Austen. It feels more like Thompson got in the author’s head, pulling out the tones and feelings of the novel while also making something that works well onscreen in 1995 (and in 2017) even if you’ve never read the source material. The book is wonderful, but the film (with Lee at the helm as director) captures all the sexiness and wildness that really only exists between the lines of a novel published in 1811.

Elinor and Marianne represent the two ideas in the title: Elinor is all sense and responsibility, while Marianne is a swirling bundle of romance and passion. Their dramatic change in circumstances — which Thompson’s script exaggerates slightly, to help modern audiences understand it — doesn’t diminish their leanings. (And even a country cottage in England looks like very nice house to our eyes.) If anything, it exaggerates them. Elinor must now be more responsible, with her father gone and her mother mostly useless; Marianne’s imagination has much more space to run wild.

And yet sense and sensibility are really two sides of the same coin, a kind of yin and yang that have to interact for people to ever experience true happiness. Marianne must learn some sense to recognize her true love. And Elinor must succumb, just a little, to impractical passion to find her own. (Who could forget Thompson’s gasps of joy when her greatest hopes come to fruition?)

The result is a comedy, a romance, a satirical costume drama, and even, at times, a thriller, stirring and swoony enough to satisfy most anyone — and to win Thompson an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. One can only assume Jane Austen would approve.

Watch the trailer for Sense and Sensibility:

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