“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

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“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

I suspect that many fans of the DC Comics character “Batman” and the “Zorro” character would be nonplussed at the idea that a novel written by a Hungary-born aristocrat had served as an inspiration for their creations. Yet, many believe that Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orczi’s 1905 novel, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” provided Western literature with its first “hero with a secret identity”, Sir Percy Blakeney aka the Scarlet Pimpernel. 

There have been at least nineteen stage, movie or television adaptations of Orczy’s novel. Some consider the 1934 movie adaptation with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey as the most definitive adaptation. However, there are others who are more inclined to bestow that honor on the 1982 television adaptation with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. I have seen both versions and if I must be honest, I am inclined to agree with those who prefer the 1982 television movie.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” – namely its 1982 re-incarnation – is based upon the 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel,“Eldorado”. Set during the early period of the French Revolution, a masked man and his band of followers rescues French aristocrats from becoming victims of the Reign of Terror under France’s new leader, Maximilien de Robespierre. The man behind the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mask – or disguises – is a foppish English baronet named Sir Percy Blakeney. For reasons never explained in the movie, Sir Percy has managed to gather a group of upper-class friends to assist him in smuggling French aristocrats out of France and sending them to the safety of England. During a visit to France, Sir Percy meets a young French government aide and the latter’s actress sister, Armand and Marguerite St. Just. He eventually befriends the brother and courts the sister.

Sir Percy also becomes aware of Armand’s superior and Marguerite’s friend, Robespierre’s agent Paul Chauvelin. Angered over Marguerite’s marriage to Sir Percy, Chauvelin has the Marquis de St. Cyr – an old enemy of Armand’s – executed in her name. After being sent to England to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Chauvelin discovers that Armand has become part of the vigilante’s band. He blackmails Marguerite – now Lady Blakeney – into learning the identity the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the Blakeney marriage has chilled, due to the news of the Marquis de St. Cyr’s execution and Marguerite’s alleged connection. But a chance for a marital reconciliation materializes for Marguerite, when she discovers the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity.

Thirty years have passed since CBS first aired “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”. In many ways, it has not lost its bite. Thanks to Tony Curtis’ production designs, late 18th century England and France (England and Wales in reality) glowed with elegance and style. Not even the questionable transfer of the film to DVD could completely erode the movie’s beauty. The movie’s visual style was aided by Carolyn Scott’s set decorations, Dennis C. Lewiston’s sharp and colorful photography, and especially Phyllis Dalton’s gorgeous costume designs, as shown in the following photographs:

SP-1982-the-scarlet-pimpernel-1009098_500_402 scarlet-pimpernel3

I feel that screenwriter William Bast made the very wise choice of adapting Baroness Orczy’s two novels about the Scarlet Pimpernel. In doing so, he managed to create a very clear and concise tale filled with plenty of drama and action. He also did an excellent job in mapping out the development of the story’s main characters – especially Sir Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, Paul Chauvelin and Armand St. Just. I was especially impressed by his handling of Sir Percy and Marguerite’s relationship – before and after marriage. Sir Percy’s easy willingness to believe the worst about his bride provided a few chinks into Sir Percy’s character, which could have easily morphed into a too perfect personality. More importantly, Bast’s script gave Paul Chauvelin’s character more depth by revealing the latter’s feelings for Marguerite and jealousy over her marriage to Sir Percy. Bast’s re-creation of the early years of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror struck me as well done. However, I wish he had not faithfully adapted Orczy’s decision to allow the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men to rescue the Daupin of France (heir apparent to the French throne), Louis-Charles (who became Louis XVII, upon his father’s death). In reality, Louis-Charles died in prison from tuberculosis and ill treatment at the age of ten. Surely, Bast could have created someone else important for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” received a few Emmy nominations. But they were for technical awards – Costume Designs for Phyllis Dalton, Art Direction for Tony Curtis and even one for Outstanding Drama Special for producers David Conroy and Mark Shelmerdine. And yet . . . there were no nominations for Clive Donner and his lively direction, and no nominations for the cast. I am especially astounded by the lack of nominations for Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. In fact, I find this criminal. All three gave superb performances as Sir Percy Blakeney; Marguerite, Lady Blakeney; and Paul Chauvelin respectively. Andrews was all over the map in his portrayal of the fop by day/hero by night Sir Percy. And yet, it was a very controlled and disciplined performance. Jane Seymour did a beautiful job of re-creating the intelligent, yet emotional Marguerite. At times, she seemed to be the heart and soul of the story. This was the first production in which I became aware of Ian McKellen as an actor and after his performance as Paul Chauvelin, I never forgot him. Not only was his portrayal of Chauvelin’s villainy subtle, but also filled with deep pathos over his feelings for Marguerite Blakeney. He also had the luck to utter one of my favorite lines in the movie in the face of his character’s defeat:

“Oh, the English, and their STU-U-U-UPID sense of fair play!”

The movie also featured some first-rate performances by the supporting cast. Malcolm Jamieson did an excellent job in portraying Marguerite’s older brother, Armand. I was also impressed by Ann Firbank, who was first-rate as the embittered Countess de Tournay; James Villiers as the opportunistic Baron de Batz; Tracey Childs as the lovesick Suzanne de Tournay; and Christopher Villiers as Sir Percy’s most stalwart assistant, Lord Anthony Dewhurst. Julian Fellowes made a very colorful and entertaining Prince of Wales. And Richard Morant proved to be even more subtle and sinister than McKellen’s Chauvelin as Maximilien de Robespierre.

After my latest viewing of “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”, I found myself surprisingly less supportive of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s efforts than I used to be. Perhaps I have not only become more older, but even less enthusiastic about the aristocratic elite. It was then I realized that despite the presence of Marguerite and Armand St. Just, “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” is based on two novels written by an aristocrat, with views that were probably as liberal as Barry Goldwater. Oh well. I still managed to garner a good deal of entertainment from a movie that has held up remarkable well after thirty years, thanks to some lively direction by Clive Donner, a first-rate script by William Bast and superb performances by the likes of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.

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JANE AUSTEN’s Heroine Gallery

janeaustenHEROINES

Below is a look at the fictional heroines created by Jane Austen in the six published novels written by her. So, without further ado . . . 

JANE AUSTEN’S HEROINE GALLERY

Elinor 4 Elinor 3 Elinor 2 Elinor 1

Elinor Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

Elinor Dashwood is the oldest Dashwood sister who symbolizes a coolness of judgement and strength of understanding. This leads her to be her mother’s frequent counsellor, and sometimes shows more common sense than the rest of her family. Elinor could have easily been regarded as a flawless character, if it were not for her penchant of suppressing her emotions just a little too much. Ironically, none of the actresses I have seen portray Elinor were never able to portray a nineteen year-old woman accurately.

Elinor - Joanna David

1. Joanna David (1971) – She gave an excellent performance and was among the few who did not indulge in histronics. My only complaint was her slight inability to project Elinor’s passionate nature behind the sensible facade.

Elinor - Irene Richards

2. Irene Richards (1981) – I found her portrayal of Elinor to be solid and competent. But like David, she failed to expose Elinor’s passionate nature behind the stoic behavior.

Elinor - Emma Thompson

3. Emma Thompson (1995) – Many have complained that she was too old to portray Elinor. Since the other actresses failed to convincingly portray a nineteen year-old woman, no matter how sensible, I find the complaints against Thompson irrelevant. Thankfully, Thompson did not bother to portray Elinor as a 19 year-old. And she managed to perfectly convey Elinor’s complexities behind the sensible facade.

Elinor - Hattie Morahan

4. Hattie Morahan (2008) – She gave an excellent performance and was able to convey Elinor’s passionate nature without any histronics. My only complaint was her tendency to express Elinor’s surprise with this deer-in-the-headlights look on her face.

Marianne 4 Marianne 3 Marianne 2 Marianne 1

Marianne Dashwood – “Sense and Sensibility” (1811)

This second Dashwood sister is a different kettle of fish from the first. Unlike Elinor, Marianne is an emotional adolescent who worships the idea of romance and excessive sentimentality. She can also be somewhat self-absorbed, yet at the same time, very loyal to her family.

Marianne - Ciaran Madden

1. Ciaran Madden – Either Madden had a bad director or the actress simply lacked the skills to portray the emotional and complex Marianne. Because she gave a very hammy performance.

Marianne - Tracey Childs

2. Tracey Childs – She was quite good as Marianne, but there were times when she portrayed Marianne as a little too sober and sensible – even early in the story.

Marianne - Kate Winslet

3. Kate Winslet (1995) – The actress was in my personal opinion, the best Marianne Dashwood I have ever seen. She conveyed Marianne’s complex and emotional nature with great skill, leading her to deservedly earn an Oscar nomination.

Marianne - Charity Wakefield

4. Charity Wakefield (2008) – She solidly portrayed the emotional Marianne, but there were moments when her performance seemed a bit mechanical.

Elizabeth 4 Elizabeth 3 Elizabeth 2 Elizabeth 1

Elizabeth Bennet – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

Elizabeth is the second of five daughters of an English gentleman and member of the landed gentry. She is probably the wittiest and most beloved of Austen’s heroines. Due to her father’s financial circumstances – despite being a landowner – Elizabeth is required to seek a marriage of convenience for economic security, despite her desire to marry for love.

Elizabeth - Greer Garson

1. Greer Garson (1940) – Her performance as Elizabeth Bennet has been greatly maligned in recent years, due to the discovery that she was in her mid-30s when she portrayed the role. Personally, I could not care less about her age. She was still marvelous as Elizabeth, capturing both the character’s wit and flaws perfectly.

Elizabeth - Elizabeth Garvie

2. Elizabeth Garvie (1980) – More than any other actress, Garvie portrayed Elizabeth with a soft-spoken gentility. Yet, she still managed to infuse a good deal of the character’s wit and steel with great skill.

Elizabeth - Jennifer Ehle

3. Jennifer Ehle (1995) – Ehle is probably the most popular actress to portray Elizabeth and I can see why. She was perfect as the witty, yet prejudiced Elizabeth. And she deservedly won a BAFTA award for her performance.

Elizabeth - Keira Knightley

4. Keira Knightley (2005) – The actress is not very popular with the public these days. Which is why many tend to be critical of her take on Elizabeth Bennet. Personally, I found it unique in that hers was the only Elizabeth in which the audience was given more than a glimpse of the effects of the Bennet family’s antics upon her psyche. I was more than impressed with Knightley’s performance and thought she truly deserved her Oscar nomination.

Jane 4 Jane 3 Jane 2 Jane 1

Jane Bennet – “Pride and Prejudice” (1813)

The oldest of the Bennet daughters is more beautiful, but just as sensible as her younger sister, Elizabeth. However, she has a sweet and shy nature and tends to make an effort to see the best in everyone. Her fate of a happily ever after proved to be almost as important as Elizabeth’s.

Jane - Maureen O Sullivan

1. Maureen O’Sullivan (1940) – She was very charming as Jane Bennet. However, her Jane seemed to lack the sense that Austen’s literary character possessed.

Jane - Sabina Franklin

2. Sabina Franklyn (1980) – She gave a solid performance as the sweet-tempered Jane. However, her take on the role made the character a little more livelier than Austen’s original character.

Jane - Susannah Harker

3. Susannah Harker (1995) – I really enjoyed Harker’s take on the Jane Bennet role. She did a great job in balancing Jane’s sweet temper, inclination to find the best in everyone and good sense that Elizabeth ignored many times.

Jane - Rosamund Pike

4. Rosamund Pike (2005) – She gave a pretty good performance as the sweet and charming Jane, but rarely got the chance to act as the sensible older sister, due to director Joe Wright’s screenplay.

Fanny 3 Fanny 2 Fanny 1

Fanny Price – “Mansfield Park” (1814)

Unfortunately, Fanny happens to be my least favorite Jane Austen heroine. While I might find some of her moral compass admirable and resistance to familial pressure to marry someone she did not love, I did not admire her hypocrisy and passive aggressive behavior. It is a pity that she acquired what she wanted in the end – namely her cousin Edmund Bertram as a spouse – without confronting his or her own personality flaws.

Fanny - Sylvestra de Tourzel

1. Sylvestra de Tourzel (1983) – She had some good moments in her performance as Fanny Price. Unfortunately, there were other moments when I found her portrayal stiff and emotionally unconvincing. Thankfully, de Tourzel became a much better actress over the years.

Fanny - Frances O Connor

2. Frances O’Connor (1999) – The actress portrayed Fanny as a literary version of author Jane Austen – witty and literary minded. She skillfully infused a great deal of wit and charm into the character, yet at the same time, managed to maintain Fanny’s innocence and hypocrisy.

Fanny - Billie Piper

3. Billie Piper (2007) – Many Austen fans disliked her portrayal of Fanny. I did not mind her performance at all. She made Fanny a good deal more bearable to me. Piper’s Fanny lacked de Tourzel’s mechanical acting and O’Connor’s portrayal of Fanny as Jane Austen 2.0. More importantly, she did not portray Fanny as a hypocrite, as the other two did.

Emma 4 Emma 3 Emma 2 Emma 1

Emma Woodhouse – “Emma” (1815)

When Jane Austen first created the Emma Woodhouse character, she described the latter as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”. And while there might be a good deal to dislike about Emma – her snobbery, selfishness and occasional lack of consideration for others – I cannot deny that she still remains one of the most likeable Austen heroines for me. In fact, she might be my favorite. She is very flawed, yet very approachable.

Emma - Doran Godwin

1. Doran Godwin (1972) – She came off as a bit haughty in the first half of the 1972 miniseries. But halfway into the production, she became warmer and funnier. Godwin also had strong chemistry with her co-stars John Carson and Debbie Bowen.

Emma - Gwyneth Paltrow

2. Gwyneth Paltrow (1996) – Paltrow’s portryal of Emma has to be the funniest I have ever seen. She was fantastic. Paltrow captured all of Emma’s caprices and positive traits with superb comic timing.

Emma - Kate Beckinsale

3. Kate Beckinsale (1996-97) – She did a very good job in capturing Emma’s snobbery and controlling manner. But . . . her Emma never struck me as particularly funny. I think Beckinsale developed good comic timing within a few years after this movie.

Emma - Romola Garai

4. Romola Garai (2009) – Garai was another whose great comic timing was perfect for the role of Emma. My only complaint was her tendency to mug when expressing Emma’s surprise.

Catherine 2 Catherine 1

Catherine Morland – “Northanger Abbey” (1817)

I have something in common with the Catherine Morland character . . . we are both bookworms. However, Catherine is addicted to Gothic novel and has an imagination that nearly got the best of her. But she is also a charmer who proved to be capable of growth.

Catherine - Katharine Schlesinger

1. Katharine Schlesinger (1986) – I cannot deny that I disliked the 1986 version of Austen’s 1817 novel. However, I was impressed by Schlesinger’s spot on portrayal of the innocent and suggestive Katherine.

Catherine - Felicity Jones

2. Felicity Jones (2007) – She did a superb job in not only capturing Catherine’s personality, she also gave the character a touch of humor in her scenes with actor J.J. Feild that I really appreciated.

Anne 3 Anne 2 Anne 1

Anne Elliot – “Persuasion” (1818)

Anne - Ann Firbank

1. Ann Firbank (1971) – Although I had issues with her early 70s beehive and constant use of a pensive expression, I must admit that I rather enjoyed her portrayal of the regretful Anne. And unlike many others, her age – late 30s – did not bother me one bit.

Anne - Amanda Root

2. Amanda Root (1995) – Root’s performance probably created the most nervous Anne Elliot I have ever seen on screen. However, she still gave a superb performance.

Anne - Sally Hawkins

3. Sally Hawkins (2007) – She was excellent as the soft-spoken Anne. More importantly, she did a wonderful job in expressing Anne’s emotions through her eyes.

“JANE EYRE” (1983) Review

“JANE EYRE” (1983) Review

As long as I can remember, both the Hollywood and British film industries have trotted out Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre” in order to make a movie or television adaptation of it. Looking back, I realize that I have seen at least six adaptation of the novel in my life time. 

One of those adaptations turned out to be the 1983 BBC miniseries, “JANE EYRE”. Directed by Julian Amyes and adapted by Alexander Baron, the eleven-part miniseries starred Zelah Clarke in the title role and Timothy Dalton as Edward Rochester. Following Brontë’s novel, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a plain young English woman in early 19th Britain – from her abusive childhood to her position as a governess at an imposing manor in the Yorkshire countryside. Jane’s story began at Gateshead, where she suffered abuse at the hands of her widowed aunt-in-law and three cousins. After a clash with her cousin John, Mrs. Reed has Jane enrolled at Lowood Institution, a charity school for girls. Jane spends the next eight years under the tyrannical rule of Lowood’s headmaster, the self-righteous clergyman Mr. Brocklehurst – six years as a student and two as a teacher.

Longing for greener pastures, Jane advertises her services as a governess, and receives a reply from a Mrs. Alice Fairfax, housekeeper of Thornfield Hall. She takes the position and becomes governess for Adele Varens, the young French ward of Thornfield’s master, Mr. Edward Rochester. After meeting Mr. Rochester, Jane develops a close friendship with him . . . and the two eventually fall in love. But a secret involving strange laughs, a mysterious fire and an attack on Rochester’s house guest, Mr. Mason threatens any chance of marital bliss for the governess and her employer.

I first saw “JANE EYRE” years ago on a video cassette copy that featured no opening or closing credits between episodes. So, it eventually came as surprise to me that the 1983 miniseries had aired in eleven thirty-minute installments. I found myself wondering why the BBC had decided to air the miniseries in this fashion. Why not air it in five one-hour episodes? Or six fifty-minutes episodes? Regardless of the manner in which the BBC had aired“JANE EYRE”, I cannot deny that in the end, I found it very satisfying.

Before I wax lyrical over “JANE EYRE”, I have to acknowledge some of its aspects that I found unappealing. Many fans probably loved the idea of this adaptation being so close to Brontë’s novel in compare to many other adaptations. And while I am relieved that Alexander Baron’s screenplay did not rush the story in a manner similar to the 1997 television adaptation, there were times when I found this miniseries a bit too loyal to the novel. I might as well confess that I am not particularly fond of the sequences that featured Jane’s years at Lonwood and her time spent with St. John Rivers and his two sisters. The Lowood sequences bored me senseless. I understand that Jane’s interactions with the school’s headmaster was a message on the oppression of a patriarchal society, I practically struggled to prevent myself from hitting the Fast Forward button of my remote. I could say the same about Jane’s time with the Rivers family. While I had initially found her relationship with St. John Rivers fascinating, I heaved a mighty sigh of relief by the time Jane returned to Thornfield Hall. Sometimes, a film or television production can be too faithful to a literary source . . . to the point of dragging the story’s pacing to a near halt.

I have one last complaint to reveal – namely the characterization of Edward Rochester’s mysterious wife from the West Indies, Mrs. Bertha Rochester. I realize that Baron and director Julian Amyes were trying to be as faithful to the novel as possible. Unfortunately, Bertha’s characterization turned out to be another example of the dangers of a movie or miniseries being too faithful to a literary source. I was surprised to experience a glimmer of sympathy toward the character, while watching the 1997 movie. I felt no such glimmer in this version . . . merely irritation. I cannot blame actress Joolia Cappleman. She must have been following the script or Amyes’ direction. But for years, I have harbored the feeling that the characterization of Bertha . . . and Adele’s dancer mother, for that matter, may have been examples of Brontë’s xenophobia toward the French or anyone who was not British. Bertha’s characterization struck me as completely one-dimensional and created in a manner to garner sympathy toward the controlling Rochester, who had just attempted to drag Jane into a bigamous marriage. Considering that the 1966 novel, “Wide Sargasso Sea” had been around for seventeen years around this time, could it have hurt both Amyes and Baron to portray Bertha in a slightly more sympathetic light?

Michael Edwards did a solid job in his production designs for “JANE EYRE”. I was especially impressed by his use of Deene Park, located near Corby, Northamptonshire; for the Thornfield Hall sequences. And his recreation of the Yorkshire countryside in 1830s England during those scenes featuring Jane’s attempts to find shelter and food following her from Thornfield struck me as tolerably convincing. Cinematographers David Doogood, John Kenway and Keith Salmon’s photography seemed pretty solid, despite the miniseries being shot in video film. Speaking of the 1830s, I still find it surprising that this is the only adaptation of “Jane Eyre” that is set during this decade. The other five versions I have seen were all set during the early or mid 1840s. I must admit that Gill Hardie’s costumes ably reflected that particular decade.

Despite my complaints, I still enjoyed “JANE EYRE” very much. Baron and Amyes did an excellent job of recapturing Brontë’s saga. Their handling of Jane’s romance with Rochester bridled with passion and intelligence. More importantly, they retained enough of Brontë’s work to convey a very plausible development of Jane’s character. Both director and screenwriter perfectly maintained Rochester’s complex personality. His love for Jane and appreciation of her intelligence seemed apparent. Yet, Baron maintained a good deal of Rochester’s sardonic humor and controlling nature. The meat of Brontë’s novel has always been centered around Jane and Rochester’s relationship. And the miniseries perfectly captured every delicious nuance of it. But I must admit that I was also impressed by the sequences featuring Jane’s early years at Gateshead. Baron did a good job of capturing the miseries that Jane suffered at the hands of the Reed family. When I first saw “JANE EYRE”, I had lacked the patience to appreciate the sequence in which Jane becomes a vagabond before meeting the Rivers family. This last viewing made me appreciate it, because it conveyed the suffering that Jane had endured after leaving Thornfield Hall – something that most adaptations seem to gloss over.

I cannot deny that the performances featured in “JANE EYRE” were top-notched. Both Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton created a strong screen chemistry as the two leads, Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester. Clarke’s Jane seemed very submissive in Rochester’s “commanding” presence . . . at least at first. There was an interesting scene in which Jane eagerly approached her employer, the morning following an evening of easy camaraderie between the two. Instead, Rochester responded in a brusque manner, producing a wounded puppy dog expression on Jane’s face. Another scene that impressed me featured Jane’s reluctant admission of her true feelings toward Rochester. The pair acted the hell out of that scene, leaving me convinced that I had witnessed their finest moment together. Some might view Rochester’s failed attempt to prevent Jane’s departure from Thornfield as that special moment. But the “admission of love” scene was the one that really impressed me.

Zelah Clarke did an excellent job in conveying Jane’s emotional growth from a reserved and pious eighteen year-old governess to the strong-willed and more emotional woman. Her Jane Eyre struck me as slightly more reserved than other portrayals. Which seemed all the more amazing to me, as Clarke slowly revealed Jane’s inner passions. Timothy Dalton gave, in my opinion, the best portrayal of the complex Edward Rochester. Mind you, he had his moments of theatricality. But in the end, Dalton superbly conveyed both the best and worst of Rochester’s character with seamless skill. Some have declared Dalton as too handsome for the plain-looking Rochester. Considering that just about every actor who has portrayed the character was more attractive than the literary character. I found such arguments irrelevant.

Both Clarke and Dalton received solid support from the rest of the cast. Damien Thomas seemed very impressive as Richard Mason, Rochester’s tenuously sane and nervous brother-in-law. I could also say the same about Andrew Bicknell’s cool and commanding portrayal of St. John Rivers, the missionary wannabe. Blance Youinou was quite charming as Rochester’s young French ward, Adele Valens. And Sian Pattenden was impressively believable as the hot-tempered young Jane Eyre.

I cannot say that “JANE EYRE” is perfect. Unlike other costume drama fans, I do not require that period movie or miniseries be an exact adaptation of its literary source. Although this adaptation of Brontë’s novel might not be completely faithful, I do wish that screenwriter Alexander Baron had been even a little less faithful, especially in scenes featuring Jane’s years at Lowood and her time spent with the Rivers family. But I cannot deny that this miniseries turned out to be an excellent adaptation. I would probably go so far to state that it might be the best adaptation of Brontë’s novel. And we have Baron’s writing, Julian Amyes’ direction and superb performances from Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton to thank.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1981) Review

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” (1981) Review

Jane Austen’s 1811 novel, “Sense and Sensibility” has been a favorite with her modern-day fans. The novel has produced at least three television and two movie adaptations and a literary parody. However, this review is about the seven-part, 1981 BBC adaptation. 

Directed by Rodney Bennett and adapted by Alexander Baron and Denis Constanduros, “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”starred Irene Richards and Tracey Childs as the two main protagonists – sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The story focused on the sisters’ attempts to find happiness in the tightly structured society of early 19th century England. Through their experiences with men and their relationship with each other, Elinor and Marianne learn that one must strive for abalance of both sense and sensibility.

From an overall point of view, this “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” seemed to be a solid adaptation of Austen’s 1811 novel. I have noticed in many articles and reviews of Austen adaptations made in the 1970s and 1980s, fans tend to view them as“faithful” in compare to later ones. Frankly, I have yet to see an Austen adaptation made before or after 1986 as completely faithful. And I can extend this opinion to this 1981 production. One, Baron and Constanduros’ screenplay began with the grieving Dashwood women returning to Norland Hall, after viewing a potential new home. And there is no sign of a Margaret Dashwood – the youngest of the three sisters – in sight. But since the other versions of the novel are no more or less faithful, I do not have a problem with this. But I did have a problem with the miniseries’ ending. It featured Edward Ferrars asking for Elinor’s hand in marriage and Colonel Brandon commencing his courtship of a receptive Marianne. That is it. The ending seemed a bit too abrupt for my tastes.

And I had other problems with “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. I realize that the male characters in Austen’s novel were not as strongly written as the female characters. But the uninspiring casting in this production made their roles seem even weaker. I am sorry to say that neither Robert Swann or Bosco Hogan as Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars had impressed me. Both seemed rather solid, but lackluster in their roles. Peter Woodward gave a charming performance as the novel’s ne’er-do-well, John Willoughby. Unfortunately, Woodward’s presence barely made a dent in the production. And his biggest scene – in which Willoughby expressed remorse for his bad treatment of Marianne to Elinor – featured some over-the-top acting. But not all of the male performers disappointed me.

Watching Diana Fairfax’s performance as Mrs. Dashwood, I found myself wondering why Elinor was forced to assume so much responsibility for their household at Barton Cottage. Fairfax’s Mrs. Dashwood seemed nothing like the emotional widow who was forced to come down to earth by her more sensible older daughter. She seemed just as sensible in her own way. Annie Leon’s portrayal of Mrs. Jennings struck me as pleasant, affable and very supportive of the Dashwood sisters. But there was something missing in her performance. She seemed subdued in compare to Austen’s portrayal of the character. Leon’s Mrs. Jennings failed to be the nosy, cheeful vulgarian that I had come to love. I barely remember Marjorie Bland’s portrayal of Mrs. Jennings’ older daughter, Lady Middleton. She failed to leave a mark in my memories. I could say the same about Hetty Baynes as Mrs. Jennings’ younger daughter, Mrs. Charlotte Palmer. And Margot Van der Burgh’s Mrs. Ferrars seemed more like a dress rehearsal for Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”.

But there were performances that impressed me. Julia Chambers and Pippa Sparks made a very entertaining Lucy and Ann Steele. I was especially impressed by Chambers’ performance, which struck a fine balance between Lucy’s scheming and desperation to become a member of the respectable and wealthy Ferrars family. Philip Bowen’s portrayal of Robert Ferrars struck me as rather funny. He gave the character a foppish edge that I have never seen in other portrayals of the character. Donald Douglas was certainly down-to-earth in an affable manner as Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton. Amanda Boxer gave a spot-on portrayal of the cold-blooded and domineering Fanny Dashwood. But the one performance that really impressed me was Peter Gale’s as the Dashwood family’s new patriarch, John. Although he gave a solid performance in the miniseries’ early episodes, he really came into his own in the role, when the story shifted to London. I was especially impressed by one scene in which Gale’s John tried to point out the suitability of Colonel Brandon as a match for Elinor. Both Irene Richards and Tracey Childs gave solid performances as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The two actresses did a first-rate job of holding the miniseries together as the the leads. And both were somewhat spot-on in their portrayal of the two sisters. Mind you, I would have liked if Richards had revealed the passion that Elinor harbored for Edward in small moments. And I wish that Childs’ Marianne was not so sober – especially in a few scenes in the miniseries’ earlier episodes. But in the end, they did a good job.

As far as production design goes, I am afraid that Paul Joel did a solid job. But there was nothing about his work that I found particularly impressive. I suspect that he may have been hampered by the budget. I was NOT impressed by Dorothea Wallace’s costumes. Frankly, I found them rather cheap looking and in some cases, slightly ill fitting. Like the miniseries’ production design, it was probably hampered by the budget. Overall, I would have to say that this “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” was the least impressive looking adaptation I have ever seen.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” had its virtues. Both Irene Richards and Tracey Childs gave solid performances and kept this production together, along with director Rodney Bennett. The supporting cast also included memorable performances from the likes of Peter Gale, Amanda Boxer, Donald Douglas, Julia Chambers and Peter Woodward. And screenwriters Alexander Baron and Denis Constanduros managed to create a solid script that was nearly faithful to the story. But due to a good number of disappointing performances and a rather cheap looking production, this is probably my least favorite adaptation of Austen’s novel.