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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Style, Wit Make Good 'Sense'

"Sense and Sensibility," perhaps the most acclaimed movie to reach Moscow since "Schindler's List" in 1994, arrives freighted with dangerous expectations: seven Academy Award nominations, a big-name cast, a much-lauded director -- and of course, the greatness of Jane Austen looming over the entire enterprise.


And with that kind of hype, it would not take much, just a missed step or two, for the movie to disappoint hugely.


What's more, the filmmakers -- director Ang Lee and screenwriter Emma Thompson -- compound the risk by not wrenching the movie into a more easily palatable modern style. Instead they adapt themselves to the pace of a story written 201 years ago, depicting modes of thought, feeling and behavior that might prove alien or incomprehensible to much of their audience. They have opted to ground the film in the particularities of the novel's time and place, letting the elements of "our common humanity" emerge from the thick matrix of manners, habits, objects, assumptions, sights and sounds of Austen's richly imagined world.


With all this in play, it is a delight to report that "Sense and Sensibility" carries off its risky propositions handsomely, and provides two hours of fascinating and moving entertainment. If it is just the slightest bit too self-conscious, too obviously earnest in trying to achieve that illusion of ease that accompanies greatness, this can hardly be counted a demerit. It stands so far above the common run of movie fare that questions of "rank" are beside the point. It's good, as few things are, and that's good enough.


The movie deals, obviously, with the conflict between "sense" and "sensibility," or in more modern usage, between "reason" and "emotion." The story revolves around two sisters, Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet), opposites who must move from these two poles toward a more harmonious balance of the mind and the heart. Their situation is complicated by the male-skewed inheritance laws of the day: Upon the death of their father, they lose their family home, live in genteel poverty, and find that all questions of love and marriage are inextricably bound up with matters of money.


The passionate Marianne is, quite literally, swept off her feet by the dashing Willoughby (Greg Wise), a poetry-spouting romantic given to grand gestures and scandalously public displays of affection, while the more reserved Elinor conceives a passion for Edward (Hugh Grant), a shy, halting suitor whose temperament matches her own. Both men bear secrets from their past, however, in which money and honor (or the lack of it) play important parts. Anyone who has read even one Austen novel knows how the story will end -- in the universal concord represented by happy marriage -- but how this will work out, and who it will work out with, depend on several intriguing and unexpected plot twists that keep the audience entranced.


Thompson has been nominated as Best Actress for her work here, and it is hard to imagine anyone turning in a better performance. She has also been nominated for her screenplay, and deservedly so. But the level of acting is almost uniform throughout the cast. Alan Rickman, as the steadfast Colonel Brandon, is especially fine; if the rest of the cast were not so good, he could have stolen this picture as he once walked away with Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood." Winslet, nominated for Best Supporting Actress, shows great control in a role that could have easily been overplayed, and the supporting cast, portraying the typical Austen menagerie of all-too-human types (hypocrites, dullards, worrywarts, gossips) are delightful in every respect. Only Hugh Grant's performance seems slightly out of kilter. It's true that gentle-souled Edward is supposed to be shy, but Grant's hunched-over manner and embarrassed mumbling at times seem more appropriate to a character who had, say, just been arrested for having sex on a street corner, and not an aspiring country parson.


Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director most famous for "The Wedding Banquet," brings a remarkable visual style to the film, a subtle sensuality that at first seems at odds with Austen's astringent prose but in the end creates a full, rich world of its own. Although he was inexplicably left off the Oscar list, he and his co-creators have fashioned a remarkable piece of work, well worth the risk of a few dollars.





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