One of the Dashwood daughters is smart, down-to-earth and sensible. The other is wildly romantic and sensitive.
When those daughters are from Jane Austen novel, you can guess that there are going to be romantic problems aplenty for both of them -- along with the usual entailment issues, love triangles, sexy bad boys and societal scandals. Ang Lee deftly adapted Ausen's "Sense and Sensibility" into the sort of movie it should be -- a lushly beautiful, quietly passionate period drama.
When Mr. Dashwood dies, his entire estate is entailed to his weak son John and snotty daughter-in-law Fanny. His widow (Gemma Jones) and her three daughters are left with little money and no home.
Over the next few weeks, the eldest daughter Elinor (Emma Thompson) begins to fall for Fanny's studious, quiet brother Edward (Hugh Grant)... but being the down-to-earth one, she knows she hasn't got a chance. Her impoverished family soon relocates to Devonshire, where a tiny cottage is being rented to them by one of Mrs. Dashwood's relatives -- and Marianne (Kate Winslet) soon attracts the attention of two men. One is the quiet, much older Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), and the other is the dashing and romantic Willoughby (Greg Wise).
But things begin to spiral out of control when Willoughby seems about to propose to Marianne... only to abruptly break off his relationship with her. And during a trip to London, both Elinor and Marianne discover devastating facts about the men they are in love with -- both of them are engaged to other women. And after disaster strikes the Dashwood family, both the sisters will discover what real love is about...
I have to give Emma Thompson credit -- she not only turns in a brilliant, tightly-wound performance as Elinor (although she does look a bit old for the role), but she also wrote the faithful, solidly written script for Ang Lee's movie. The narrative glides silkily through the story, and adapts Austen's writing into elegantly vivid dialogue ("Can he love her? Can the soul really be satisfied with such... POLITE affections?") with some moments of gentle humor ("How did you find the silver? Was it all genuine?").
And Ang Lee takes what Thompson has wrought and makes it even lovelier, filling it with pale light, misty country hills, luxurious manorhouses, sunlit gardens and yards, and rain-swept fields where handsome men go riding on horseback. He has the knack for coaxing intense emotions from small gestures and words, and evoking budding love that is unsaid and unexpressed until the end (especially for Edward and Elinor). The absolute peak of his skill is right before Marianne's terrible illness, when she's left standing on a hilltop in the rain, whispering a Shakespearean sonnet.
Marianne and Elinor make excellent dual heroines for this book -- that still love and cherish each other, even though their polar opposite personalities frequently clash. Thompson plays Elinor as being tightly wound and a bit repressed, while Winslet races joyously through the dramatic and romantic parts of the story, only for Marianne to crash and burn when Willoughby betrays her.
And the supporting cast is no less brilliant -- Jones and Rickman are particularly good as the girls' loving mother, and the mellow, quiet Colonel Brandon (the man "everyone thinks well of, and nobody remembers to talk to") who stands by hoping for Marianne's happiness. Wise, Robert Hardy, Elizabeth Spriggs and Harriet Walters all give excellent performances, and even Hugh Grant (who usually annoys me like an unreachable itch) did a good job as the shy, studious Edward.
"Sense and Sensibility" is an emotionally powerful tale about two very different sisters, and the rocky road to finding a lasting love. And it was beautifully done by both of the people at its core -- Thompson's writing and acting, and Ang Lee's direction.