Recommended Re-Viewing: Now Is The Perfect Time For Jane Austen, The Master Of Social Satire

Olivia Ovenden
Photo credit: Esquire UK

From Esquire

Recommended Re-Viewing is a series in which Esquire's editors (and the odd famous friend) make the case for re-watching an old movie, TV show or web clip, which you can stream without leaving your house. It might be a plot that's so bad it's good, a scene which deserves more interrogation or a director's underrated gem.

There is something slightly claustrophobic about Jane Austen's stories, which take place in houses of varying grandness as people whisper by the piano, or where a bomb goes off in the drawing room courtesy of a letter detailing how somebody took a carriage ride to the coast.

Perhaps the idea of people confined within walls feels a little too close for comfort right now, but confined spaces make for great humour and drama. And if anyone can make a case for how to dial up the tension while very little is going on, it is Jane Austen.

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For most people, Jane Austen's novels are the drippy romance books which you had to decode in order to write school essays about the virtues of truthfulness; books filled with complicated language (and two hours of faffing around) in order to tell someone you fancy them.

But – hey, come back! – Jane Austen is actually the master of picking apart our behaviour and satirising the flaws that make us human. There is a lot of Austen to enjoy from the comfort of your home: Autumn de Wilde's recent adaptation of Emma has just gone to home rental and Netflix's catalogue includes Pride and Prejudice, a different version of Emma, and the deathless Emma riff, Clueless.

The pick of the bunch however is Ang Lee's adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the 1995 film for which Emma Thomson's screenwriting won an Academy Award and in which she stars alongside Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.

Sense and Sensibility is about a family grieving – and struggling to survive – as their father's death forces them out of their home. There are kisses in the rain with bonnets askew and haughty social conventions, but unlike many period dramas, Thomson's script challenges the snobbery which this world is steeped in, imbuing it warmth and humour.

In the same way that Greta Gerwig gave Louisa May Alcott's Little Women a modern point of view in her 2019 adaptation, Emma Thomson's update of Sense and Sensibility further developed Austen's male characters by giving them more kindness and sensitivity, in doing so re-examining what values should be celebrated in leading men.

In Thomson and Lee's hands the source material sings. The wit is sharp and the family dynamics and power plays feel like they have more in common with Succession than Downton Abbey. Yes there are breathy exclamations of emotion, such as Kate Winslet's character declaring "to love is to burn, to be on fire!", but there are also sudden betrayals, characters that you rooted for showing their true colours, and those you dismissed coming into focus more clearly.

Austen is often misunderstood as writing dull "country house novels" but her humour, social observations and focus on women who are in charge of their own destiny, as seen in the steady stream of adaptations of her work, prove she is as relevant as ever.

If for no other reason, watch for the moment in which rain-soaked Winslet’s Marianne Dashwood declares, “What care I for colds when there is such a man?”, and Thompson’s Elinor Dashwood replies curtly, “You will care very much when your nose swells up.”

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