Monday, April 30, 2012

Sisterly Bonds

If one were to make a film adaptation of the work of Jane Austen, Regency England, and the bond of sisters, a male, Taiwanese director doesn't immediately stand out as the ideal person for the job. But, such is the brilliance of Academy Award winning director, Ang Lee. In his English language film debut, 1995's Sense and Sensibility, the director crafted a film that still ranks as the best film version of Jane Austen's work (Sorry, Joe Wright) and one of the best film's of the 90s. Not being English and steeped in the legend and reverence of Austen, he was able to look at the material through a fresh pair of eyes. And he has stated that his culture is all about repressed emotions, which people don't understand in the same way they did during Austen's time. It allowed him to get inside the psyche of these characters, who hid their true feelings, and capture the heartache of unrequited and unspoken love. And, yes, at it's heart Sense and Sensibility is very much a love story. But, the love that holds the film together is not romantic love, but the relationship between sisters– sensible Elinor (Emma Thompson) and wildly romantic Marianne (Kate Winslet)–that is the heart of the film.

I have highlighted three scenes that I feel best capture the relationship of the two and the growth it undergoes.
The Tease

Elinor: I do not attempt to deny that I think very highly of him. I greatly esteem him. I like him
Marianne: Esteem him? Like him? Use those insipid words again and I shall leave the room this instant.
Elinor: Very well. Forgive me. Believe my feelings to be stronger than I declared, but further than that you must not believe. 

After the death of their father, the Dashwood sisters are left virtually penniless as all his money and estate, by law, belong to his son of a previous marriage. Their half-brother and shrewish sister-in-law Fanny (Harriet Walter) have come to their soon-to-be-home, displacing the life the girls of the only life they have known. Elinor's repressed emotions are also put in an uproar as she begins to form an attachment to Fanny's visiting brother Edward (Hugh Grant). 

Up until this point, Marianne, who very much wears her heart on her sleeve, has been sulking about the home (all melancholy, downward looks and dreary piano songs). This is the first real, intimate interaction the sisters share with each other in the film. Marianne has gone to Elinor's room to inquire about her sister's affections. 

Marianne believes that real love is the kind that is hot to the touch and burns you with emotion. Elinor, careful with her emotions, is not outwardly showing her devotion the way Marianne prefers. Marianne gently teases her sister in this scene–berating Edward's lack of passion for reading poetry and for the limpid response Elinor gives when asked if she loves him. 

The scene quickly illustrates how each feels about the other. Despite all Marianne's teasing, she is devoted to her sister, even saying that she can't imagine living without her when she marries. Thompson and Winslet have a naturalness with each other and a playfulness that feeds off each other. Ang had them live together during the production so they could deepen their relationship off-screen, thus making the bond that much more believable onscreen. 

Heartbreak and Understanding after the jump

The Heartbreak

Marianne: Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?
Elinor: What do you know of my heart? What do you know of anything other than your own suffering?

For over an hour and a half of the film, we have watched as Elinor quietly has resigned herself to the fact that Edward will not marry him. He has been secretly engaged for years to a Miss Lucy Steele who confided this information to Elinor. Up until this point she has been suffering in silence.

At the same time, Marianne has been having a passionate affair with a Mr. Willoughby. He literally swept her off her feet when she sprained her ankle on a hill and had been head over heels in love every since. When he suddenly stops seeing her, she doesn't understand because they are obviously in love and what more do you need? When the sisters spend time in London, they see Willoughby again and he pretends to not be interested in Marianne. We later find that he has fathered a child out of wedlock and been cut-off of his inheritance. He is now engaged to a woman of a great amount of money, thus shunning the poor Marianne. This has obviously put Marianne off and she has been grieving ever since. 
Elinor, ever the devoted sister, has been by her side through the pain. all the while nursing her own broken heart.

In this scene, everyone finds out about the engagement between Edward and Lucy. Marianne is shocked because she suddenly realizes that Elinor has known about it for some time. But, she is especially confused that with all that has happened to Elinor, that she didn't confide in her sister or outwardly show her upset–the way Marianne is so easily prone to do.

This is one of the only times when Elinor shows the emotion she is actually feeling. The ice is melting and the volcano is erupting. It's one of Emma Thompson's strongest scenes in the movie. There is the danger of going over the top with the emotion which would betray the nature of Elinor's character. What Thompson does so wonderfully is makes the breakdown believable. Even while railing against her sister she is still slightly holding back. And right at the moment when she would cry, Marianne is. The Elinor we know quickly comes back and she is the one comforting her sister. It's such a powerful moment. We see that her devotion to her sister is so great that she put's it above her own feelings. Such sacrifice is noble, but devastating.

The Understanding
Elinor: Do you compare your conduct to his?
Marianne: No. I compare it to what it ought to have been. I compare with yours.

After a near death experience in which Marianne finally took her romantic sensibilities too far, Elinor realizes just how much she needs her sister ("Do not leave me alone.") and Marianne finally begins to see the value of Elinor's sense. 

This is the last scene that the two share alone together before the end of the film. Marianne has brought Elinor to place where she first met Willoughby. But instead of an emotional breakdown or dramatic scene, she instead inwardly reflects. She had stated earlier in the film that she did not understand Elinor, but she finally begins to mature. It is childish to indulge in every emotional whim that takes hold. And Marianne finally realizes how she has misunderstood her sister's lack of emotion. And slowly begins to find the balance of emotions within herself. But more importantly, she come to understand how valuable her sister is to her. Men my come and go, but the bond of sisters is deep. 

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