Sunday, February 7, 2016

Adapted Austen: Sense and Sensibility, 1981

Ten years after its first attempt, the BBC took another stab at Sense and Sensibility. In some respects, it’s a step sideways, if not backwards; this 1981 production looks in many cases even cheaper than its predecessor, despite using actual houses of the period rather than wobbly stage sets. Lighting seems to be the culprit; videotape is entirely different from film, and what looks sharp and pristine on the latter can seem harsh and ugly on the former. In this regard, the new production at least benefits from an increased number of outdoor sequences, given that the BBC drama department had a perplexing policy of switching from video to film anytime the action shifted from interior to exterior scenes. (Anyone remember the hilarious Monty Python sketch mocking this practice?)

In some respects, the 1981 Sense and Sensibility can be called an improvement. Despite being almost half an hour shorter than the 1971 series, it seems to pack in more of the story without feeling bloated. And the leads are particularly well cast. Irene Richards is just about ideal as Elinor; she’s not conventionally pretty, but there’s something about her that makes it difficult to watch anyone else while she’s onscreen. She conveys a quiet dignity through not much more than the tilt of her head and the angle of her eyes. I found her enchanting. Tracey Childs is also very appealing as Marianne, though she tends to gush just a bit.

The script, by Alexander Baron, gives the two sisters more complexity than they had in the earlier adaptation—a challenge the actresses meet brilliantly. In the original novel, Austen begins with Elinor representing sense and Marianne sensibility, but soon comes to feel constricted by this choice (we can almost sense her rebelling against it as we read), and ultimately shows Elinor as being more susceptible to feeling, and Marianne to rationality, than either would want to admit. 

This was a failure of the 1971 adaptation that I should have noted; we never see Elinor’s stoicism crumble, or Marianne’s romanticism hobbled by momentary doubt. In this later production, we see both quite clearly. (It’s even reflected in the lovely opening titles, with the sisters seated on a teeter-totter, one going up as the other descends.) There is, for instance, the moment in which Willoughby, coming to rescue Marianne after she’s hurt her ankle, proposes to lift her up and carry her back to Barton Cottage; Marianne says, “Oh, sir, no, please. It would be immodest.” And there’s no sense of protesting for form’s sake, while being secretly excited at breaking such a taboo, as you’d expect from a true free spirit; no, Tracey Childs’s performance makes it clear that Marianne really is as shocked as a duchess by the idea.

Similarly, in a later scene, Elinor overhears Marianne and Willoughby make fun of Colonel Brandon and Mrs. Jennings, and confronts them, rebuking them for their ridicule. There’s a real sense of conflict—almost of menace—in Irene Richards’s tone, even though she barely raises her voice. “Perhaps the abuse of people like yourself and Marianne is a compensation,” she hisses, when the young couple try to defend their mockery by protesting that its only the truth. “If to be praised by them is bad, to be censured by you is praise.” These are pretty strong words for an Austen character, and it’s clear that “I-govern-my-emotions” Elinor is seriously, burn-the-house-down mad, here. Willoughby, in fact, is visibly unnerved by her slap-down; with a nervous laugh he calls her “saucy,” then says, “The battle grows too hot for me,” and basically makes a run for it. 

Speaking of Willoughby, Peter Woodward nails him cold. He has the requisite gallant manner and dazzling good looks, but he also conveys an odious oiliness … a kind of amoral, feline glee. In every scene, he behaves like he’s already lifted someone’s wallet but is sticking around just in case another really good idea occurs to him. He’s basically Martin Shkreli in a Regency wig.

And then there’s Bosco Hogan as Edward Ferrars. A slam-dunk. Like Irene Richards, he’s not conventionally attractive—he’s a slight man, with a large head, and the production has given him a head of flat blond hair, like he’s just lifted it out of a tub after dunking for apples—but there’s a sort of steely indomitability in him that grabs you early on. Elinor certainly feels it; it’s only shortly after meeting him at Norland Park, that he comes across her sketching on the lawn and looks momentarily uncertain as to how to react, and she tells him, “Do sit down. You will not intrude. We both appear to like silence.” In another setting, that line would be almost a warning: You’re free to join me, but keep your pie hole shut. But here, it really is one placid spirit recognizing its twin.

I also quite like Robert Swann as Colonel Brandon. Initially he comes off as a bit of a cipher; but as his scenes grow longer, and we get to know him better, he grows in interest and attractiveness—exactly the way he should, given his role in the story.

Some of the smaller roles are wonderfully cast, as well. As Fanny Dashwood, Amanda Boxer exudes gorgeous contempt for everyone and everything around her. She barely parts her lips to deliver her lines, as though whoever she’s talking to isn’t worth the effort of actually opening her mouth. There’s an early scene, at Norland Park, where Fanny is trapped in a drawing room with the not-yet-moved-out Dashwoods, and says, “And what shall we do now? Marianne, will you play us something?”—but with a sigh of defeat, as though Marianne’s playing is the only alternative to, say, everyone driving stakes through each others’ hearts.

Boxer’s finest moment comes during the scene in which Anne Steele reveals to Fanny that her sister Lucy has been engaged to Edward for several years. Fanny pauses for a moment—you can almost see the wheels turning in her head, as she weighs exactly how much ignominy this revelation calls for, before deciding, All of it—then she falls into convulsions, shrieking, “Trollops! Schemers!” It’s epic.

Alas, not everyone in the cast thrives. Julia Chambers, as Lucy Steele, is a mess; her first meeting with Elinor is all over the place. We can’t tell whether Lucy really does want Elinor’s friendship, or has come purely to warn her away from Edward. It is, of course, possible for an actress to convey both; but she’d need a better script, and far better direction. We never really do get a handle on who Lucy is in this production, and it’s a big mark against its ultimate success.

Even worse is Annie Leon as Mrs. Jennings, who sort of putters and sputters and coos and chuckles indiscriminately, like a windup toy; aim her at the white cliffs of Dover and she’d trundle right over the edge. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Mrs. Jennings is just about my favorite character in the novel, and I think she’s crucial to the story’s success (if only because, incessant talker that she is, she’s always reminding everyone where we all are in the narrative). But Annie Leon’s take on the character is all tics and mannerisms; there’s no heart to her—no weight. She’s like a housefly who keeps buzzing into the scenes, unwanted.

Donald Douglas, as Sir John Middleton, is also a bit of a trial. Like his 1971 predecessor, he seems to feel he can build a character just by dialing the volume up to eleven. His Sir John is always shouting happily at people who are standing literally inches away from him. A little louder and he might bring the roof down on his head, which by Episode 2 is exactly the fate we find ourselves wishing on him. (I did, however, enjoy hearing him blare at Marianne, while telling her what little he knows about Willoughby, “And he’s got the nicest little bitch of a pointer I ever saw.”) 

At least one role in the novel wasn’t cast at all: youngest sister Margaret Dashwood is no more on evidence here than she was in 1971. As if to make up for it, two characters are invented: actual servants at Barton Cottage. And in an even more sensational departure from Austen, they’re both given names (Tom and Sue) and honest-to-God lines. A triumph of democracy!

While the casting is largely, if not entirely, successful, the script is less so. For one thing, there’s the perpetual problem with language. While not as grievously so as in 1971, little here sounds authentically Austenian. There is, for example, once again that pesky reliance on gerunds—which is an utterly modern formulation, and rings totally false in period pieces. Elinor asks, “Is Mr. Edward Ferrars going to be married?” Remove that word, “going,” and what you have left is exactly right. But we keep getting the the same mistake, over and over again.

This is far from the only example of tone-deafness on offer. Some of my favorite lines are mangled—and needlessly so. For example, Charlotte Palmer (played with admirably unflagging idiocy by Hetty Baynes) says of her husband, who’s just directly ignored something she’s said to him, “Mr. Palmer doesn’t hear me; he never does.” Austen’s original, by comparison, is the entirely nonsensical, entirely genius, “Mr. Palmer does not hear me; he never does sometimes.” 

Problems with language might be overlooked with only an occasional cringe or grimace. But this production commits far worse offenses. The bones of the story are tinkered with, in ways that are damaging to the narrative flow—and in some cases outright ruinous.

For example, when Sir John tells the Dashwoods about the Steele sisters coming to stay at Barton Park, Edward is there—which he isn’t in the novel—and it’s clear from Edward’s reaction that the news is not at all welcome to him. This tells us at once that we can expect some kind of revelation about his relationship to the Steele sisters—which doesn’t come for quite a while; in the meantime, we’re put in the awkward position of knowing more about Edward’s feelings than Elinor does. This adds nothing to the story except setting up a tension that isn’t relieved nearly soon enough. 

Even worse, when Willoughby arrives at Cleveland late at night, having ridden all the way from London, it is not—as it is in the novel—because he’s heard that Marianne is ill. Never mind that that makes perfect dramatic and emotional sense. No, in this version Willoughby shows up in darkness, banging on the door, and when Elinor lets him in and tells him Marianne can’t see him because she’s ill, he’s astonished. He had no idea. Which leaves Elinor nothing left to say, but the obvious, “Mr. Willoughby, why did you come here?”

His reply: “I could bear it no longer.” So, rather than have him hear of Marianne’s mortal illness and come flying to her in a fit of grief and guilt and panic, we’re to believe he just sat up in bed on that exact night and decided to get on a horse immediately and go and say “Sorry I was such a jerk.” I don’t understand the point of this—why an entirely credible and dramatic rationale for his appearance—the rationale used in the original novel—was rejected in favor of one that wouldn’t pass muster in a first draft.

There are also a few lamentable instances of changing the story to pump up the melodrama—what I call “Victorianizing,” but you’re welcoming to call vulgarizing. For example: at the party where Willoughby rejects Marianne, it’s Colonel Brandon who comes to her rescue—keeping her from crumpling to the floor and almost carrying her bodily from the premises. Because of course it is. I suppose they didn’t have the budget to have him ride in on a white horse.

Another example: after Edward’s engagement to Lucy is revealed, John Dashwood summons his sisters to his London house, to compel them to have nothing more to do with Edward. Elinor proudly defies him, with Marianne’s vocal encouragement, and then the sisters storm out with their chins in the air while John, chastened, dribbles apologetically after them. The whole scene is a complete fabrication; not only did Austen not write it, she’d rather have thrown herself off a roof than descend to anything this heavy-handed. (In the novel, she has Elinor go voluntarily to John’s house to inquire after Fanny, who she’s heard has been taken ill by the news; and the conversation between brother and sister is entirely more civil, and endlessly more hilarious.)

There’s more along the same lines…but I haven’t the heart to dwell on it. I will, however, excuse one small dose of Victorianizing, at the very end. Edward arrives at Barton Cottage and, after some awkward moments of misunderstanding, makes it clear that it’s his brother, not he, who’s married Lucy Steele—meaning he’s still single, and free to marry Elinor. And Elinor actually gets up and flees the cottage, sprinting prettily across a verdant landscape, including a picturesque bridge over a babbling stream. Edward, thinking he’s upset her, has to be persuaded by Marianne to follow her, which he does; and when he finds her, she turns to face him, and says the words no Austen heroine ever uttered in print: “I love you.” 

Well…call me an old softie. I bought it. Austen would snark at me for it. But there’s probably a lot Austen would snark at me for, and in this case I’ve decided to live with it.

But by all means, feel free to be more stringent on your own behalf.