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2008 BBC Sense and Sensibility

The grand finale of the 3-month-long Austen celebration offers much for commentary—from the casting of the sisters, to the “casting” of Barton Cottage, to Andrew Davies’ adaptation. Davies’ longtime reputation as an adaptor of period novels rests on his ability to forge successful connections between Austen’s novel and a modern audience.

Davies starts with a shock—a seduction scene. Although central to its storyline, no such scene is described in the novel. My initial disappointment was minimized by well-paced scenes of ensuing events: Henry Dashwood’s deathbed request and demise, the deliciously evil dominance of Fanny in her acquisition of Norland Park, the sisters’ romantic dilemmas, Colonel Brandon’s past, all wrapped in beautiful cinematography. They soften the opening scene until its impact resurfaces in Colonel Brandon’s revelation that Willoughby had seduced and abandoned Eliza. The seduction would likely have been simultaneous with the death of Henry Dashwood, so the placement of these scenes side-by-side is forceful. The provocation of the opening scene underscores the poignancy of Marianne’s unchaperoned visit to Allenham and the imminent dangers of association with Willoughby—dangers otherwise likely lost on modern audiences.

Davies’ adaptation adds other ingredients for emotional credibility to a modern audience. Most obvious is his more in-depth characterization of Edward Ferrars. Left as Austen wrote him, Edward lacks more than he possesses: he has no profession, no good looks, as Marianne points out, “his figure is not striking,” he can neither play a musical instrument nor sing, and cannot draw. To rectify this Davies frequently presents Edward in action: galloping on approach to Norland and empathetically treating Margaret to a horseback ride after her cousin has taken her pony. Davies lends comedy to Edward’s and Elinor’s similar tendency to restrain all emotion, while retaining it as trait to be admired, by showing them in uncharacteristic physical activity as a way of venting frustration. At their first meeting Edward arrives in time to witness Elinor, aggravated by sister-in-law Fanny’s crushing supremacy at Norland Park, beating the rugs. Seeming to understand her actions, he offers her relief in humor by asking if he can join her. In a parallel to this scene Edward fiercely chops away at firewood as his way of coping with the obstacle of his secret engagement.

Davies also spices up Colonel Brandon, creating a character worthy of Marianne’s admiration. He presents the duel between Brandon and Willoughby and its possible bloodiness. Clips of the duel are inter-cut with scenes of Marianne writing and then sealing a letter to Willoughby with drops of blood-red wax. Brandon is victorious, but resists wounding Willoughby, and he later carries Marianne from the rain into Cleveland. About to loosen her dress in haste to save her life, he resists this impulse in response to propriety. Within minutes he is galloping in retrieval of Marianne’s mother. Marianne admires him from inside her coach as he, on horseback, accompanies the family back to Barton Cottage. She admires Delaford’s library (à la Elizabeth’s changed feeling toward Darcy at Pemberley), as she plays the pianoforte there. She watches Brandon free a falcon and gently stroke its feathers, a perhaps too-obvious, but still beautiful parallel to the improvements which she herself will undergo under Brandon’s guidance.

--Linda Reinert, Letter from Chicago, Summer 2008