"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Masterpiece: Sense & Sensibility

Jane Austen's first published novel, "Sense and Sensibility," seems as fresh today as it must have in 1811. The complex story of courtship, told with wit, irony and humanity, is a great read almost 200 years later, and its characters are among the most memorable in English literature.

The novel focuses on two Dashwood sisters, Elinor (representing sense, or good judgment) and Marianne (representing sensibility, or emotion).

This two-part, three-hour PBS "Masterpiece" movie -- the last of the series' presentations of the six Austen novels -- gets off to a most shaky start. Amid the glow of red lights, a couple are making love. We can't identify them until much later in the story, but lovers of Austen may well ask: Have the movie makers abandoned their sense and let their sensibility run wild? An even worse fear for those who love the book: Has this Jane Austen novel been reimagined as a bodice ripper?

Almost immediately, the movie gets on the right track and stays there.

At the beginning of the movie, Mr. Dashwood, Elinor & Marianne's father dies, leaving the manor to his son, John and trusting that John will take care of his stepmother and three half sisters. With the encouragement of his odious wife, Fanny, John leaves his female relatives nearly destitute, and they go to live with a distant cousin in a Devonshire cottage.

Along the way, Elinor attracts the attention of Fanny's brother, Edward Ferrars, and Marianne attracts two beaux -- Colonel Brandon, who is dependable but twice her age; and Willoughby, whom she prefers.

At different points in the story, both Colonel Brandon and Willoughby carry an ailing Marianne to safety during downpours, and both men display admirable qualities and puzzling behavior. The rivals dislike each other, and in a scene mentioned in passing in the novel, they even fight a duel.

Both sisters lose their loves, and both eventually find lasting love. One of the pleasures of the story is that it's unclear which of the three men are scoundrels and which are not, and which sister will end up with which gentleman. Yet, when the plot twists have been unraveled, the ending seems perfect

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