Sense and Sensibility (2008) is a three-part BBC adaptation of the classic novel by Jane Austen starring Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood, Charity Wakefield as Marianne Dashwood, Dominic Cooper as Willoughby, and Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars. One of the points of the novel is the difference between Elinor and Marianne. My own preference, for what it’s worth, is a Marianne who’s a victim of her choice in reading material. Such is her passion for romantic fiction and poetry that she develops an unrealistic view of the world. This colours her actions and attitudes at every point. Elinor, on the other hand, is the epitome of practicality. If she does allow herself dreams of what might be, they are firmly recognised for what they are and subservient to more immediate needs. Yet although Hattie Morahan’s Elinor seems to be striking the right notes, Charity Wakefield’s Marianne seems cut from a similar cloth. Indeed, until we get to her overreaction in meeting Willoughby, she’s been rather more constructive and accepting of their fate in being banished to the wilderness than I would have believed possible. That said, once at the cottage, Marianne is allowed to behave in a completely uncivilised manner without sanction. She wilfully snubs poor Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey) who’s kept waiting for an unconscionable length of time, and her reward is to be carried back into the house by Willoughby — neither Elinor nor her mother (Janet McTeer) attempt to correct her barbaric lack of manners.
Willoughby is generally shown to be at the very least culturally insensitive over the offer of the horse and then in whisking Marianne off when Colonel Brandon’s picnic is abruptly cancelled. The slightly scary obviousness of his intentions lead the neighbourhood to believe they are engaged. The possibility of the scandal is therefore established for the visit to London with Mrs Jennings (Linda Bassett). Yet, the whole production feels rushed. We only have an hour and must get Brandon out of the way, Willoughby off to London, Edward Ferrars on a whistle-stop visit, and the Steele sisters into play. That means a lot of ground to cover with a few broad brushes of the scriptwriter’s pen. The last of the three episodes continues at a headlong gallop, often with a rather more modern use of language than Jane Austen could ever have dreamed up. Elinor and Marianne are crushed by Willoughby in public and Mrs Jennings is shocked to discover the libertine is engaged to another. Edward’s engagement is revealed to his unsympathetic mother by the dim Miss Steele and he’s sent off without a penny. In Cleveland, Marianne falls ill (obviously disaster befalls her whenever she wonders around in the rain and has to be carried back in the arms of a strong man), Willoughby appears and Brandon does all the right things. Minutes later, we are back in the cottage by the sea (another interesting decision to include all the dramatic scenes of waves rushing in upon the romantically rocky shore). Marianne plays the piano in Brandon’s library, sees how good he is with a falcon and agrees to marry him. Edward comes and declares his love, and before you can say whatever you feel is appropriate in these situations, it’s all over.
Frankly, I’m in a state of mild despair. The decision to try cramming everything into a nominal three hours (allowing for the odd advertising break every now and again) has produced superficial characterisations, key scenes are omitted as where Brandon agrees to give Edward a living, and the general tone of the production is slightly darker than I would have expected. In the last episode, Elinor and Marianne are in bed together discussing men. There’s no better place for such discussions. Marianne wonders whether men treat women as mere playthings. This seems to be emphasised by the way in the which production is paced. Willoughby is shown as something of a sexual predator. The inclusion of an actual duel with Brandon is an interesting decision to show Willoughby’s humiliation in private does nothing to damp down the public persona. Indeed, his manner in the London ball could not be worse and his dismissal of his new wife when confronting Elinor in Cleveland is cold-hearted, as is the implicit denial of wrongdoing in siring an offspring with Brandon’s ward. Where it not for Marianne’s lack of experience and more romantic temperament, he would never have made progress. Her experience shocks her into accepting Brandon as a rock she can cling to in any storm. I’m not sure I’m convinced by this Marianne’s declaration of love for the man. She seems to be recovering from Willoughby rather quickly and emerging as somewhat flighty. In the novel this is avoided because she firmly explains her emotions as being less than love. That’s why her marriage is a triumph of sense over sensibility.
But the real problem comes with the lack of screen time for Edward. The whole point of this man is his honour. Yet we are never given the chance to get to see the man and understand just how seriously he takes any promise he makes. This underwriting complicates what we see of Elinor’s reaction to him. Depending on how you view their first meeting, he may be seen as leading her on when he knows he cannot take it further. Or we could see Elinor as being as overly romantic in her reaction to him. Why is there this confusion? It’s the scene in the library at Norland. By allowing Margaret Dashwood (Lucy Boynton) to leave and give them the necessary privacy, he’s encouraging Elinor to believe a proposal is coming. Worse, he should know Margaret will almost certainly pass on the news to the rest of the family. The behaviour of a gentleman of the time would never have allowed this to happen. He would have been sensitive to the needs of preserving propriety if others were present or of ensuring privacy. So this production starts us off on the wrong tack with this character. Frankly, this is one of the many problems with the script by the usually reliable Andrew Davies.
We can perhaps forgive the opening sex scene. It does give some credibility to the power the wife Fanny (Claire Skinner) exercises over John Dashwood (Mark Gatiss) and sets up the scenes showing the marginalisation and departure of the female Dashwoods to their impoverished cottage. The country houses and interiors, as always, show high production values and give the adaptation considerable credibility. If only there had been four rather than three hours, we might have had the time to meet and get to know the people. Sad really but, for once, this Sense and Sensibility is a poor show despite the more than competent acting of the principals.