I have never been a huge fan of romance stories. Chick flick movie night? No thanks. I’d rather watch Iron Man or Pirates of the Caribbean. Plain drama, as such, has never appealed to me (though occasionally I like a little drama mixed in with a lot of adventure.) There is one author, however, that achieves the perfect mix between romance and reality, with a healthy balance of sweet, sad, and comedic elements. Her characters are real: both flawed and heroic. Her stories have had universal appeal for over two centuries, even drawing fans like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The author, of course, is Jane Austen.
Pride and Prejudice has long been my favorite Austen story. For years I was adamant that no other romance would be able to come close to it. Then I discovered Emma, and enjoyed it as much if not more than Pride and Prejudice. There was one of her stories, however, that I was never very intrigued by. I tried watching and reading Sense and Sensibility a couple of times over the years without ever becoming a fan.
Last week when I re-watched the 1995 Emma Thompson version of Sense and Sensibility, I was instantly sold. The acting was fabulous, the story brilliantly handled, and the characters were wonderful. The only question I was left with at the end of the show was “Why on earth did I not realize how good it was before?”
Yes, I know. This movie was made nearly 20 years ago. It may seem a little odd to be doing a review on such an old film. But I don’t mind. My admiration for it is as fresh as if Sense and Sensibility had been released in theaters last month. I’m convinced that a good story never ages. That goes for good movies, too!
(Because this is such a well-known story, I will be including spoilers in this movie review.)
Sense and Sensibility is the story of sisters Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Marianne (Kate Winslet) Dashwood. When their father dies, their half-brother John inherits all of their father’s money and completely ignores the needs of his step mother and three half-sisters. Prudent, rational Elinor finds the burden of providing for her family laid on her shoulders. She and her family are kicked out of their own home by John and his wife Fanny, and are forced to begin a new, quiet life in the country.
As they are moving out of their home and preparing for the journey to Devonshire, Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) comes to visit her. The Dashwood family expects Edward to be as self-serving and obnoxious as his sister, and are happy to be mistaken. Edward Ferrars’s gentle, compassionate nature immediately captures the heart of Elinor. No sooner do they find themselves attached to one another than Fanny, horrified at the thought of her wealthy brother marrying a poor woman, packs Edward off to London and sends the Dashwoods to Devonshire.
Marianne can’t understand what her sister saw in Edward. She can’t imagine loving a man who isn’t dashing and adventurous. So when she meets their new neighbor in Devonshire, Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), she never gives him a second thought. He’s a good deal older than she is, and though he’s compassionate, responsible, and the perfect gentleman, he isn’t Marianne’s idea of a suitor. Mr. Willoughby, on the other hand, is exactly what Marianne has always dreamed of. He’s tall, dark, and handsome, and is just as impulsive and wild as Marianne herself. They fall in love instantly and are blind to everything – and everyone – else. When Willoughby suddenly leaves the country, abandoning Marianne and dashing all of her hopes, they begin to wonder if Willoughby was truly as honest and upright as he seemed. Meanwhile, Colonel Brandon has grown to love Marianne deeply, while realizing that he has little chance of ever winning her heart.
Elinor Dashwood is a refreshing, lovely character to say the least. Her constant cheerfulness, her grace under pressure, and her quiet spirit were anchors for both the other characters and the viewers of Sense and Sensibility. In the midst of gossiping, she remains discreet. In the midst of chaos, she is peaceful. In the midst of complicated, awkward, tangled relationships, her gentle words and friendship are a breath of fresh air. To put it simply, Elinor is a beautiful example of womanhood.
Since her mother (unfortunately) is quite immature and occasionally petty, Elinor becomes the family’s protector, provider and leader when her father dies. She comforts her sisters, pays the bills, cares for the house, and gently guides and advises her mother. Not once does she complain about the burden laid upon her. Neither does she flaunt her responsibility and lord it over any one of her family members. She simply does what needs to be done, and does it well. I pray that I can someday earn and grace the title ‘lady’ as well as Elinor Dashwood does.
Any portrayal of a functional, loving family on screen is a rare occurrence. Portrayal of love between siblings is even more rare. The sisterly love of Elinor and Marianne for each other was beautifully done. Elinor endeavors constantly to rein in her sister’s impulsive, passionate nature and instill in her a sense of prudence and propriety. At first, Marianne resents Elinor’s advice and can’t understand her sister’s calm, rational ways. In the end, though, after enduring much heartbreak and remorse, Marianne comes to appreciate Elinor’s wisdom and loves her for it.
Before her change of heart, however, Marianne gives no thought to others. Willoughby encourages her in her selfish, immature behavior. They think of no one beyond themselves. Several times, Marianne slights Colonel Brandon to his face in favor of Willoughby. Thankfully for Marianne, Willoughby’s black character surfaced before she became entangled with him for life. He left her for a richer woman without a second thought. When Marianne finally looked up from the mess she got herself into, she found that someone had been waiting for her patiently. Someone who truly knew the meaning of love.
Who had loved her all along.
If you’d asked me a year ago who was the best Austen hero of all time, I would have said “Mr. Darcy” before you’d finished your sentence. If you’d asked me the same question two months ago, I would have answered, “Mr. Knightley.” It’s not that I’m fickle. (At least I hope not.) I just hadn’t realized the full depth of the characters. Mr. Darcy is wonderful – he is flawed, but overcomes his flaws and loves Elizabeth selflessly and fully. Mr. Knightley is even more wonderful – he has less arrogance, and a longer, more meaningful and beautiful friendship with the woman he loves. I love both of these heroes and always will. But ask me today who the best Austen hero of all time is, and I will answer, “Colonel Brandon” with full confidence.
(It’s interesting to note that, unlike most romances, Sense and Sensibility focuses on Elinor and Colonel Brandon, not Elinor and Edward. Edward did not have much screen time at all. The hero is indisputably Brandon, though Elinor is not in the least in love with him. It’s a truly unique way of telling two different love stories at once.)
Christopher Brandon has seen a lot. He’s been through war. He was thwarted in love as a young man, and lived alone ever since. His closest neighbors (an older couple) are loud and raucous. And yet he doesn’t sit at his home and feel sorry for himself. He doesn’t spend any of his time dwelling on past losses. Instead, he’s a true friend to the annoying neighbors. He genuinely cares for everyone who crosses his path. He watches Willoughby steal Marianne away from him and yet wishes them happy from the bottom of his heart.
Here lies Brandon’s secret. Here lies his advantage over both Mr. Knightley and Mr. Darcy: Colonel Brandon has deep, rooted maturity and patience that was born from hardship. The other men have relatively easy lives compared to him, and haven’t been tested and tried and weathered as Brandon has. (Please understand that I am not in any way shape or form downing Mr. Knightley or Mr. Darcy. I admire, love and enjoy their characters and stories. I am merely making clear the difference between their lives and Brandon’s. I do not fault them for having a happier story than Brandon, or say that they are weaker than he is because of it. Both of their characters are very strong and noble and thoroughly good.) Brandon has encountered massive obstacles in his life. Obstacles which, had I been presented with them, would probably have destroyed me completely. But Colonel Brandon didn’t let them defeat him. He took one grueling step at a time until he had conquered the mountains that loomed over him. And when he finally came out on the other side of the struggle, he was infinitely the better for it. Where selfishness and self-pity could have taken root, patience and humility had grown instead. Brandon had every right to feel sorry for himself, to be bitter, to despair. But he didn’t. He found people to bless and help, and got immense joy out of doing it.
Yes, I admit, Colonel Brandon isn’t as handsome as Mr. Darcy. He isn’t what comes to mind when one thinks of a dashing gentleman suitor. But I’d rather steadiness, joy, selflessness, laughter, gentleness, joy, humility, honesty, and kindness than black hair, a long coat and a tall, strong physique. No one stays young and handsome forever. But strong character and true love lasts even beyond death.
“At the beginning of this post,” you say, “this girl said that she wasn’t a fan of romances. And yet here she is going on and on about the hero of a love story. What’s up with this?” Yes, I did say that romance didn’t hold much appeal to me. And I meant it. But the word ‘romance’ and the idea attached to it has been wrenched from its true meaning over the years. If by ‘romance’ you mean the popular definition – dramatic tales focused largely on emotion and attraction – then no, ‘romance’ holds very little that I would consider worthy. The type of romance that Marianne thought she wanted, and found in Willoughby, is fleeting and (no matter what the love songs say) doesn’t last. The type of romance that is founded on feelings, beauty, fascination and attraction may be very exciting, but on its own it brings nothing worth having in the long run. Love based on feelings isn’t true love at all.
If, however, by ‘romance’ you mean two people loving each other more than themselves, willing to undergo hardship as long as the other is happy and safe, giving their time and energy to bless and encourage and help each other, loving each other patiently and gently through every trial, then I consider romance to be one of the most beautiful and worthy things in the world. Give me stories of this type of love, and I will read them with joy. Give me romance that doesn’t stop when the camera does, on the wedding day, with petals flying in the air and laughing faces surrounding the couple. Give me romance that I know carries on steadily through the years, in good times and bad, without flagging, growing stronger each day. Give me a romance that will inspire me to serve and love my own hero someday when my love story begins. One that will remind me what true love really means.
That’s a romance I can get excited about.