This 2008 adaptation of Jane Austen’s first published novel stands out as the best so far, not because it is utterly faithful to the novel, although it is the most faithful of all adaptations over the last twenty-five years, but because it really penetrates the emotional heart of the novel.
This version begins by revealing the two actions that fuel the story. The first is only alluded to in the novel: the seduction of Eliza Williams by John Willoughby (Dominic Cooper). It is shown in close-ups lit with the bright red of a fireplace, so it isn’t possible to truly identify either the seducer or seduced. The second action is the true beginning of the novel: the death of Mr. Henry Dashwood. On his deathbed, surrounded by his second wife, Mrs. Dashwood (Janet McTeer), and her daughters, Elinor (Hattie Morahan), Marianne (Charity Wakefield), and Margaret (Lucy Boynton), he entreats his son John (Mark Gatiss), from his first marriage, to make sure they are adequately taken care of, given that the English system of inheritance will exclude them from all but a paltry yearly stipend.
John inherits Norland Park and his wife, Fanny (Claire Skinner), immediately wants to move in and convinces him that his promise to his father certainly wouldn’t any kind of financial security. When the Dashwoods arrive, Marianne is quite upset. She feels the mansion should be rightfully theirs, but Elinor, the more sensible of the two reminds her that the house is not legally theirs. Fanny is unbearable. They decide to look for a new place to live, but Mrs. Dashwood simply has no idea of how little money they have. Elinor suggests that they will only be able to afford a cottage.
Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens), the oldest son in their moneyed family, comes to visit and he and Elinor are deeply attracted to one another. Just the opposite of Fanny, he is nice to Margaret and makes friends with Marianne. Fanny, seeing the attachment between Elinor and Edward, counsels Mrs. Dashwood that Edward is destined to marry a very wealthy, well-placed society woman. Shortly after that, Mrs. Dashwood receives an invitation from her cousin, Sir John Middleton (Mark Williams), to let a cottage on his estate at Barton Park in Devonshire and she immediately accepts.
The family relocates to a beautiful cottage by the seaside, surrounded by rolling hills and the rough rocky cliffs of the shoreline. Sir John and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Linda Bassett), immediately set about trying to find husbands for them. They introduce Colonel Brandon (David Morrissey), a wealthy former military man of thirty-five. He falls in love with Marianne, but she thinks he is too old and lacks passion. In an attempt to evade him, she takes a fall in the hills and is rescued by Willoughby, who is visiting his aunt at nearby Allenham. Thinking him very romantic, Marianne falls in love with him, not realizing that he has already seduced Eliza Williams. Brandon, confronts Willoughby, but the latter proclaims that his intentions toward Marianne are honorable.
Mrs. Jennings’ nieces, Lucy (Anna Madeley) and Anne Steele (Daisy Haggard), come to visit and Lucy confides in Elinor that she has had a private four-year engagement to Edward. It comes as a shock, but Lucy swears Elinor to secrecy. Every time they meet thereafter, Lucy reminds Elinor that’s Edward is her lover.
As the whole group prepares to go on a picnic to Brandon’s estate, Delaford, but receives an urgent letter that causes him to cancel. He rides off leaving the party confuses, but Willoughby takes advantage of the situation to take Marianne to show her Allenham, while his aunt is away. Since he has taken a lock of her hair and seems to be completely in love with Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor assume that they are privately engaged, but when it looks like Willoughby will make a formal proposal, he suddenly leaves for London at his aunt’s bidding.
Later, Mrs. Jennings decides to visit her home in London and takes the girls with her. Expecting to see Willoughby, Marianne writes to him every day, but hears nothing. Then, at an Assembly, she confronts him and he coldly turns his back on her. Nearly fainting, she is rescued by Brandon. He returns all of her letters to her, apologizing for giving the false impression that he may have cared for her. Marianne is distraught. Mrs. Jennings then discovers that Willoughby is engaged to a young woman of great fortune and Brandon reveals to Elinor that Willoughby seduced his young ward, fifteen year old Eliza Williams and left her with child.
The group goes to a gathering held by Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Ferrars (Jean Marsh), where Lucy Steele hopes to gain the good will of her future mother-in-law, but when Anne accidentally reveals the engagement, Mrs. Ferrars tells Edward that unless he breaks the engagement, she will cut him off from his fortune. A man of honor, Edward sticks to his promise to Lucy.
Brandon escorts the family back to Devonshire, stopping at Delaford along the way. Seized by her grief at losing Willoughby, Marianne gets lost in the rain and is found by Brandon. She is put to bed, but develops a life-threatening fever. Elinor waits at her bedside while Brandon brings their mother, but Marianne’s fever breaks and she recovers. Realizing that Brandon loves her and seeing how he has cared for her, Marianne switches her affections to him and becomes engaged.
When Edward returns, everyone assumes that he is married to Lucy, but he reveals that Lucy has also switched her affections to his brother and has married him, leaving Edward free to marry Elinor. Hearing this news, Elinor tries to cope with her feelings as Edward proposes. A happy ending is thus concluded, with Marianne happy as the mistress of Delaford while Elinor marries poor Edward in his country parsonage, happier than she would have ever believed.
Fans of the book will note that several changes have been made, but nothing truly drastic. Many other versions of the story have managed to lose characters, such as little sister Margaret, who plays a great part in this version, and Anne Steele, who also plays a big part. The script is written by Andrew Davies who did such a masterful job with the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, which is largely regarded as the best version of that masterpiece. Even with the few changes that Davies has made, the script remains more faithful to the novel than any other version. The characters of Elinor and Marianne are beautifully written and take their part at the heart of the story. Marianne’s passion is appropriately tempered with Elinor’s restraint.
Casting is frequently the cause of either the success or failure of a novel adaptation and that is certainly the case here. Hatty Morahan’s Elinor is staid, but always, beneath the surface, you see her emotions whirling. This care to show us how much Elinor feels, while outwardly appearing in control, is simply a beautiful job of acting. Charity Wakefield’s beauty certainly compliments her passionate view of life and the acting is superb. These two bring us full circle as Marianne learns some of the restraint of her sister, while Elinor finally opens up her heart and allows us to see deeply inside. The chemistry of these two as sisters is truly great. Janet McTeer is marvelous as Mrs. Dashwood and the charming restraint of Lucy Boynton as Margaret is simply delightful.
All the technical aspects are very well done, the sets beautiful and especially landscape of Devonshire is a delight to the eye. One great little detail is Margaret’s collection of sea shells which she strings together to make a visual motif that the camera repeatedly comes back to. The beauty of the sea side is lovingly captured.
Sequenced into a three episode series, each episode lasting one hour, it comes out to three hours compared to the five hours of Pride and Prejudice, but compared other movie versions, constrained to a two-hour format, this covers the scope of the book very well indeed. If watching the DVD, you may as well skip the self-congratulatory “Making of” featurette and go immediately to Disk 2, which has a movie length BBC production called “Miss Austen Regrets.” This is a fictional biography of Jane Austen and is fairly well done.
I highly recommend this version of Sense and Sensibility and it would make a great addition to any Janite collection.