When it comes to the men of Austen, Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy has always been in a class by himself. Occasionally he's proven far more memorable than some of the scribe’s heroines, yet when critics and devotees turn their attention to Sense and Sensibility, there’s a nearly universal dissatisfaction with the novel’s dull yet loyal Colonel Brandon who nonetheless manages to secure the affections of the young, spirited Marianne Dashwood. Typically-- due to both their similarities in temperament and their estimable age of mid to late thirties-- Brandon is lumped together with Emma’s Mr. Knightley who often scolds the precocious matchmaker with schoolmarm styled dialogue such as “Badly done, Emma. It was badly done, indeed.” Yet despite the fact that Knightley is consistently deemed preferable to Brandon, to me Emma’s beau seems about as sexy as a collections agent (except when portrayed by Jeremy Northam in the ’96 adaptation) and while-- granted-- neither man is in Darcy’s league, Brandon always seemed like my kind of guy. Trying to validate this belief became a much harder case to make in Ang Lee’s stunning ’95 cinematic version penned by Emma Thompson when the ages of nearly every character (save for Kate Winslet’s Marianne Dashwood), were increased and Brandon was portrayed by Alan Rickman a.k.a. the villainous star of Die Hard who thereafter had a recurring role in my childhood nightmares. However, even though he was brought to life by the man who would become Harry Potter’s Snape, there was always something about his chivalry, his obvious affection for Marianne and the fact that, in stark contrast to his usually dour exterior, he seemed to grow more joyful when in close proximity to her positive, passionate demeanor that genuinely touched my heart.
This is augmented considerably in director John Alexander’s gorgeous Masterpiece Theatre miniseries Sense and Sensibility, which recently made both its television and DVD premiere thanks to the good folks of PBS and the BBC. Startlingly sensual from the start as we’re introduced to the story via a love scene-- for a moment, I wondered if screenwriter Andrew Davies (who penned the best Austen adaptation with the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth) had picked up the right book. Although quickly we’re pushed headfirst into the familiar tale of the serious, practical and protective Elinor Dashwood (The Bank Job’s Hattie Morahan) and the fiery roughly seventeen year old Marianne (Charity Wakefield)-- two close yet decidedly different sisters who along with their mother (Tumbleweeds and Songcatcher star Janet McTeer) and much younger sister Margaret (Lucy Boynton) are left nearly penniless after their father dies and his estate and fortune are left in the hands of their greedy half-brother and his manipulative Lady Macbeth styled wife, aptly named Fanny.
While Fanny takes an instant dislike to the women, her charming brother Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens) arrives for an overdue visit and proceeds to form an attachment to Elinor that troubles both Fanny and the Dashwoods when the overly polite Edward and soft-spoken Elinor fail to make any concrete plans regarding marriage. Not so subtly kicked out by Fanny, the Dashwoods retreat to the country when they’re offered assistance and a humble cottage from Sir John, a relative of their mother’s whom she’s never met and find themselves instantly welcomed by not only Sir John and his wife but John’s dedicated thirty-five year old friend Colonel Brandon (The Other Boleyn Girl’s David Morrissey).
Admirably and perhaps indicative of the fact that screenwriter Davies is male, we’re given a greater glimpse into the male characters and dynamics in the film as Brandon is positioned more as a kind, unlikely soul mate than his usual label as an old, tired boor. In sharing with Marianne a genuine love of music and books and eagerly surprising her with sheet music, Davies sets the two of them up nicely until the oblivious Marianne who’s mistaken his generosity for friendship turns her attentions to the Austen’s quintessentially sexy bad boy Willoughby (Dominic Cooper from The History Boys and Mamma Mia!). While those familiar with the rascally Willoughby know exactly where this is headed, it’s great fun to watch another reinvention of the classic that invites comparisons to Ang Lee’s sumptuous classic and at the same time also adds more dimension to the tale in its inclusion of more scenes taken directly from the novel that strengthen characters' motivations.
Clocking in at three hours, surprisingly Alexander’s amiable (as Austen would say) adaptation never ceases to impress. While the talented but under-utilized and erroneously cast Hattie Morahan makes a weaker Elinor than Emma Thompson-- and there’s no replacing the Oscar nominated Kate Winslet-- the film’s real revelation comes in the astute portrayal of Charity Wakefield as a more earnest and relatable Marianne who nearly ignites on screen with fevered passion and becomes even stronger when sharing scenes with Cooper (predictably) but even more so when partnered with Morrissey. Granted as someone in the character’s age bracket it pains me to say that the obvious difference in the ages may not benefit the argument that Brandon is the right man for Marianne in the staunchest critics. However, given the benefit of the adaptation’s length and making his character feel more alive and less one dimensional, perhaps even his fiercest detractors will have to admit that when all is said and done, there’s just something about Brandon after all.
In other words, "Nicely done, Davies. It was nicely done indeed."