A review requested by Rachel P, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The broadly-defined genre of Prestige Picture Adaptations of Unassailable Literary Classics is terrifically old and terrifically durable, though it has had specific high and low points over the years. The most recent high, in the English-speaking world, covered most of the 1990s, when the successes of Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in 1989 and Merchant-Ivory's Howards End in 1992 (itself a delayed capitalisation on the same team's A Room with a View, released in 1986) proved enough to trigger a mania for well-heeled adaptations and variations of the things you read in high school, or a least in a freshman year college English class. As with any movie fad, some of the individual efforts were strong and some were clinkers (the hit-to-miss ratio of major Shakespeare adaptations over the decade is fairly dire), but all in all, I'd be inclined to say that it remains my own favorite period of Literary Classics movies ever. And the best film of the bunch is probably the 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, directed by Ang Lee from a script by Emma Thompson.

By all means, putting a talent like Lee in place already gave the film a huge leg up: the director's fist wholly English-language film was superficially an enormous shift from his contemporary-set studies of Taiwanese family life, but his brilliance was in figuring out how the story was basically just an extension in different clothing of the same kind of interpersonal dynamics he'd already made his specialty (and would continue to do going forward, ultimately resulting in the scandal of making a pensive family drama out of Hulk). What separates the great costume drama literary adaptations from the drearily mediocre ones is, in most cases, their emotional accessibility: the films that clearly demonstrate how people alive decades or centuries ago were feeling, fleshy people like ourselves are brilliant, whereas the ones that are arch fashion shows set in authentic but sterile re-creations of old locations tend to be the most boring, stultifying movies on God's green earth. Lee was uniquely well-suited to make a film on the right side of that gap.

But while Lee's contribution to the film's success is impossible to diminish, it's hard not to think of this as Emma Thompson's achievement overall. As an actress, she's the best part, or the only genuinely good part, or surely one of the highlights, of virtually every film she was involved in throughout the half-decade preceding this movie, but that's not the real tell. The real tell is that the four movies she acted in under Branagh's direction during their marriage are generally terrific or at least fascinating in their miscalculations, and they are best in some of the same ways that Sense and Sensibility is at its best. He hasn't made anything nearly as good since their divorce, which just so happens to have been finalised about two months before Sense and Sensibility came out. Am I saying that Emma Thompson was the secret genius behind Branagh's best work? No, that's scurrilous gossip-mongering. I am heavily implying it. The really sad thing is that after doing whatever wonderful magical voodoo she did to make this such a great work - in the process, becoming the only person to win both a writing and acting Oscar (she had the latter from Howards End) - Thompson's career basically swan-dived into oblivion.* For this, I feel sad on Thompson's behalf, but even sadder on behalf of myself and everyone else who'd like to know what she might have had up her sleeve next.

The plot of Austen's 1811 isn't as ubiquitous as her 1813 follow-up, Pride and Prejudice, but I pray it's not that unfamiliar (especially since I prefer the earlier book). The ingredients, anyway, are pretty basic: the second wife (Gemma Jones) of the late Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson), and her three daughters Miss Elinor Dashwood (Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet), and Margaret (Emilie François) are horrified to learn that Dashwood's son by a first marriage, John (James Fleet), has been persuaded by his harpyish wife Fanny (Harriet Walter) to ignore the dying man's request and leave the second family penniless. They are able find temporary housing with one of Mrs. Dashwood's cousins, and set themselves to the task of surviving, which for a family of women in the late 18th Century can only mean making suitable marriages. For Elinor, who is stiffly pragmatic ("Sense"), this does not mean the handsomely awkward Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), Fanny Dashwood's brother, for though they strike up a warm relationship, the threat of his disinheritance hangs over his every action. For Marianne, who is ready to burst with passionate, intense emotions ("Sensibility"), this does not mean the boring Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), no matter how smart a match he'd make; she's much more interested in the charming, obviously roguish John Willoughby (Greg Wise). Things play out with Sense and Sensibility becoming more like each other, to the hard-won benefit of virtually all.

As a work of adaptation, Sense and Sensibility is mostly a matter of streamlining Austen's original, giving Ferrars and Brandon a bit more to do, and finding a way to indicate to moderns what the hell all of this is about without it feeling pandering. That goes beyond the simple matter of contextualising a vastly different set of cultural norms about gender roles: Sense and Sensibility is a very financially-obsessed story, even more interested in the economic role of women in Georgian England than with their social roles. And the first triumph of the film is in the way it lays all of this out in neat little moments that feel organically woven into the story, occurring naturally rather than feeling like the movie has to come to a stop to lecture us. For one thing Sense and Sensibility never feels like, is a lecture. In fact, given its basic seriousness, a not-insignificant 131-minute running time, and overwhelming costume and production design (the former by Jenny Beavan and John Bright, the latter by Luciana Arrighi), one of the more impressive things about the movie is that it's quite a lot of fun to watch.

Credit due there to Thompson, to Lee, to damn near everybody. This is as lively as costume dramas get, thanks in large part to an exceptional cast: only Grant feels like a let-down of the major characters, and that's more because his "I'm so hapless and awkward, but unbearably cute" shtick was already wearing thin by the time this movie came out, rather than because it's a bad fit for the character. In fact, he's perfectly fine in the role. But "perfectly fine" doesn't help one to stand-out in this crowd. The best of the lot are unmistakably and necessarily Thompson and Winslet (though I am also much partial to Imelda Staunton in a modestly-sized role), whose huge age gap helps to fuel the gulf of understanding between two sisters who love each other very much and still can't fathom how the other lives. Winslet impresses me more, mostly because of context unavailable at the time (this was only her third movie role): she's a great actress but not an infallible one, and her future career tends to show that her biggest liability is when she's playing period roles. She tends to choke off her natural prickly energy and tendency to dart in unexpected directions in favor of playing dully literal notions of old-fashioned attitudes. That's exactly what she's not doing her: her Marianne is a tricky, mercurial person, not a prop for dresses, not a desperate attempt to hide a modern way of building character underneath a one-note stiffness (two shortcomings obviously present in her Titanic performance). Not that Thompson is a slouch; she's just not a revelation. Still, her emotional striptease in allowing us to see with exquisite slowness and deliberation what Sense has cost her character is impressive and important, and if the film's narrative works largely because of her smart excisions and clarifications, its emotional arc depends to a great degree on her gradations of feeling.

The aesthetic framework for these characters is crisp and unshowy: in terms of visuals, Lee and cinematographer Michael Coulter are mostly interested in drawing us into the film's reality by treating it with invisible naturalism, and for a film of such plush design, it's surprisingly casual in its style. The most dramatic thing that happens is the subtle way that the two sisters are framed: Elinor appears within boxes and against straight lines, while Marianne is likely to show up in open frames with more lighting and messiness in the set decoration. That's lovely as a grace note, but it's not something the film actively insists we notice; part of Lee's mechanism of bringing the material to life in a highly accessible way is to avoid putting any kind of spin on it - the contrast between this and his later period film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with its painterly images and self-conscious grandeur, to match its bold-strokes emotions and stylised narrative, is immediately obvious. Sense and Sensibility is much more about fine details, and the quiet style Lee brings to it is exactly what's needed for those details to catch our attention in their own time and not because the film wants to assault us. Though it is ultimately a tribute to Sensibility, it's a movie made with much good Sense, and that's exactly why it's so much more effective than almost all of the other films of its type and of its time.

*Or even worse, Nanny McPhee pictures.