Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Forty-Six


#46 — Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee, 1995)
At the time it seemed that, above all else, Sense and Sensibility proved that Emma Thompson could do anything. It was just three years earlier that she elbowed her way into debates intended to identify the finest actress of the era with her subtly inventive, Oscar-earning performance in James Ivory’s Howards End. She became quite busy after that, but still found time to expand which film jobs needed to included in her filmography by taking Jane Austen’s 1811 novel Sense Sensibility and skillfully adapting it into a screenplay. Through her effort, the story of the Dashwood sisters and their dual pursuit of love becomes a bright, vividly realized entertainment. Thompson herself plays Elinor with a moving reticence, a furrowed-brow pragmatism that only heightens her own small triumphs.

In retrospect, its tempting to focus instead on the film’s key place in the career of Kate Winslet, proving that her striking debut a year earlier in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures was a promise certain to be fulfilled. Bold and lovelorn as Marianne, Winslet is exciting to watch. She displayed a shrewdly intelligent confidence that would be evident in performance after performance that would follow. Swooning or sobbing, she perfectly gets at the impetuousness of her character, the headstrong quality that makes her so endearing even as her behavior is at its most frustrating. The term that often gets bestowed on such a performance early in a career is “star-making,” but that’s doesn’t seem quite right. Winslet didn’t announce herself as a star; she announced herself as a great actress, a far more valuable achievement.

But really, the person who most merits celebration is Ang Lee, stepping out from the indie films steeped in cultures more familiar to him. The film is an opening statement about his versatility as a director, as different from the small family comedies that preceded it as this film is from the cinematic curve balls yet to come. And yet it is what this film has is common with other Ang Lee efforts, what makes it distinctively a product of his, that is the key to understanding why it is so rich, warm and rewarding. Lee has an abiding fascination with the delicate nature of human emotion, and, luckily, a corresponding understanding of it. With Sense and Sensibility, he effectively begins articulating the thesis that runs throughout all his films, the thing that unites and enlivens them. He shows, with compassion and empathy, that love and devotion–that everything that sends the heart soaring–transcend time, place and culture. The ache that exists inside the Dashwood sisters is the same one that’s felt by everyone, from 18th century Chinese warriors to American cowboys grappling with desire that they’ve been taught is wrong. How much can differences matter when the thing we all have is common is so deep, so resonant, so profound?

Turns out that, no matter what we may have thought at the time, it’s actually Ang Lee who can do anything.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

3 thoughts on “Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Forty-Six

  1. It did seem that Emma could do anything, didn’t it? She was truly one of my heroes.

    Until Nanny McPhee.

    Until I get a handwritten apology for that one, I’m afraid I can’t quite forgive her.

    1. I wouldn’t expect that personal note any time soon.

      I was stunned when I saw the trailer for Nanny McPhee. This? This? This is her screenwriting follow-up to Sense and Sensibility and Wit?

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