Austen and Ang Lee
Updated: May 5
Ahead of Thursday's screening of Sense and Sensibilty as part of Worthing WOW's Jane Austen season here's an extract from the chapter on the film from my book on Ang Lee.
Sense And Sensibility (1995)
Director: Ang Lee. Screenplay: Emma Thompson. Based on the novel by Jane Austen. Editing: Tim Squyres. Cinematography: Michael Coulter. Costume Design: Jenny Bevan and John Bright. Production Design: Luciana Arrighi. Original Music: Patrick Doyle. Producers: Laurie Borg, Lindsay Doran, Sydney Pollack and James Schamus.
Emma Thompson (Elinor Dashwood), Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood), Hugh Grant (Edward Ferrars), Alan Rickman (Colonel Brandon), Greg Wise (John Willoughby), Gemma Jones (Mrs Dashwood), Tom Wilkinson (Mr Dashwood), Robert Hardy (Sir John Middleton), Elizabeth Spriggs (Mrs Jennings), Hugh Laurie (Mr Palmer), Imelda Staunton (Charlotte Palmer), Emilie Francois (Margaret Dashwood), Imogen Stubbs (Lucy Steele), James Fleet (John Dashwood), Harriet Walter (Fanny Dashwood).
Based on Jane Austen’s novel, which was written in 1795 but not published until 1811, Sense And Sensibility was Lee’s first crack at directing a film that was based on previously published source material.
But whose film is it? The opening credits tell us that it is ‘A film by Ang Lee’. Yet, it was Emma Thompson who got the credit, the publicity, the chat-show appearances, the Oscar (for Best Adapted Screenplay), the published screenplay and the accompanying diary. But it is also very much an Ang Lee film – one that neatly follows his three Taiwanese films: Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994). It can be seen as the transitional film between his Asian and his English language films. Bigger budgets, bigger stars, bigger locations….
When it was first announced that one of England’s most popular novels was to be directed by a relatively unknown Taiwanese director who had never read any Austen’s works, had never made a film entirely in English, had never made a film outside his two home territories of New York and Taipei, had never made a film with international stars, initial reactions were that it seemed an odd choice at the very least. Not that odd, considering that, like Eat Drink Man Woman, Sense And Sensibility is about the lives of three sisters in search of love and freedom within their strict environment. In one, the eldest sisters deeply conservative women who are mindful of the duties they are expected to fulfil and who pale into insignificance when their younger sisters around, the middle sisters are attractive young women with scores of willing young men eager to woo them. The youngest sisters are rebellious and fight the conventions and expectations of girls on the verge of adulthood in their society
Given these strong similarities it is surprising that press coverage of the time were surprised that Lee pulled it off. Not only did he make a great film, but he (along with Thompson’s screenplay) captured the spirit and vivacity of Austen’s original.
Without being worn down the pressures of preserving the text and far better than the ever so polite and respectful BBC adaptations, Lee has created the definitive Austen film.
Sense And Sensibility has at its core many of themes featured in Lee’s previous films, and he brings to a Western audience the Chinese sensibility of the long shot which caused much consternation on set. The act of holding back, of showing restraint is very much in keeping with his period of English social conventions and in particular this novel. This film contrasts the two Dashwood sisters. Elinor (the sense) who withholds all emotions and feelings and Marianne (the sensibility) who is all too eager and to let it be widely known who she likes and dislike. She has yet to learn the art of decorum and this almost kills her.
On the first day of filming (19th April 1995), Lee held a Buddhist ritual ‘Big Luck’ ceremony which Emma Thompson describes in her diary: ‘He set up a trestle table with large bowls of rice, two gongs, incense sticks, oranges (for luck and happiness), apples (for safe, smooth shooting), a bouquet of large red-petalled flowers (for success) and an incongruous pineapple (for prosperity). Everyone lit a stick of incense, bowed in unison to the four corners of the compass and offered a prayer to the God of their choice. The camera was brought in on the dolly for a blessing, And a few feet of film were rolled. Ang struck the gongs, we all cheered and planted incense in the rice bowls. I cried. Al Watson, one of the electricians, passed Ang and said, ‘Is this going to happen every day, guv?’’
Was the first day of filming blessed with good luck? No. There was a hailstorm!