Sense and Sensibility and Jane Austen’s Accidental Feminists

Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s 1996 film portrays a masculinity that embraces women’s desires, independence, and well-being.

Columbia Pictures

When it comes to the most memorable men written by Jane Austen and brought to life on the screen, Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy tends to overshadow all others—and for good reason. The BBC’s 1995 television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice titillated audiences with the invented scene of a soaking-wet Darcy running into Elizabeth Bennet after a swim, and he became such a beloved symbol of Regency-era manhood that a 12-foot tall fiberglass statue of him was erected and displayed in a London lake in 2013 (where it remained until it was relocated to Australia). In more ways than one, Firth’s Darcy positively towers over his competition as the embodiment of Austen’s ideal man—with the exception of two characters from another ’90s adaptation of the novelist’s work.

Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, which premiered in the U.K. 20 years ago, is best known for its dazzling direction and for Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning screenplay. Less remembered is the radical way the film elevated its two male characters—Colonel Brandon (played by the late Alan Rickman) and Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant)—beyond their source material. Sense and Sensibility deliberately imbued Austen’s first published heroes with qualities they either didn’t have in the novel or didn’t have to the same degree: egalitarian attitudes toward women, an affection for children, and emotional sensitivity. In other words, Sense and Sensibility used updated versions of early 19th-century heroes to sell emerging ideals of manhood to the late-20th century, at a time when the pro-feminist men’s movement was challenging gender norms in the realm of politics and pop culture.

To see what Sense and Sensibility was up against, it’s useful to remember that the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1996 was Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. (Gibson, who also starred, walked away that year with the Best Director Oscar for the film.) Braveheart has not stood the test of time, having once been declared the worst movie ever to win best picture: Gibson’s William Wallace, loosely based on the historical 13th-century Scottish warrior, now looks like a chest-thumping cross between Thor, Fabio, and Rambo. The critic William Luhr has summed up the film as offering viewers a “conservative if not reactionary masculinity,” and an excessively violent reaction to a moment when traditional manhood itself was imagined as under attack.

Sense and Sensibility set out to do something different: It made male receptiveness to female needs and desires and a commitment to proto-gender equality seem both incredibly attractive and historically inevitable. This required Thompson’s screenplay to make several departures from Austen’s 1811 novel, as I discussed in an essay I wrote for the 1998 book, Jane Austen in Hollywood. Louis Menand, writing in The New York Review of Books in February 1996, called the film’s changes “improvements on Austen’s original,” noting the heresy of that point of view. He argued that the “chief problem of the book is the stupefying dullness of the men the Dashwood sisters eventually pair off with”—a problem, Menand noted, that Thompson appeared to have fixed.

Austen’s Sense and Sensibility invests far more energy into developing its female characters than its male ones—and understandably so. It is, after all, a novel about what happens to a family of four women (a recently widowed mother and her three daughters) forced make their way in the world, suddenly without means or even a home. The story focuses specifically on the rich inner lives and opposing temperaments of its two sister-heroines, the rational Elinor and the romantic Marianne. Their respective love interests are hardly the stuff of fantasy—the diffident, not handsome, and unambitious Ferrars, and the much older, silent, and grave Colonel Brandon.

The first crucial feature that made Grant’s character feel more modern and likable was his love of children. Thompson’s screenplay invented Ferrars’s rapport with Elinor’s younger sister, Margaret Dashwood (Emilie Francois); in a note, Thompson indicates that a “connection [is] made” when Ferrars playfully coaxes her out of her hiding place in their first encounter. Not only does he seem to have an intuitive grasp of how children think and feel, but he also proves himself at ease in the role of both caretaker and teacher. Later in the film, Ferrars instructs Margaret how to fence—an empowering choice of sport for a young woman in the 1800s.

Rickman’s Brandon oozes a more enigmatic manliness and a strong-but-silent cosmopolitanism, but his character, too, is complemented by his guileless affection for women. Unlike Ferrars, Brandon is already an experienced guardian, having helped raise a girl, his ward Beth (renamed from the original Eliza of the novel). Brandon admits in both novel and film that he’s made mistakes as a father-figure that resulted in her running off with a libertine. (Plot spoiler: That libertine is revealed to be Marianne’s first tragic love interest, Willoughby, played by Greg Wise). Yet the film introduces new dialogue for Brandon, who worries that he gave his gone-rogue teenage ward too much “freedom.” In other words, Thompson presents Colonel Brandon as a father-figure who errs on the side of providing too much independence to girls, not too little. And in the film, Beth’s running off is not a result of Brandon’s neglect, a far more common failing in Austen’s flawed fathers, including Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice and Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park.

Rickman’s performance offers the film’s most complex version of manhood. Brandon’s caregiving abilities shift from guardianship to courtship as he helps Marianne after she—lovesick over the faithless Willoughby—takes ill with a fever. Unlike in the novel, the film lingers on the scenes in which Brandon reads to Marianne, as she appreciatively convalesces on a lawn chair. Watching Rickman’s Brandon play Marianne’s devoted companion is a turning point: It marks the beginning of her and the audience’s recognition that she’s falling in love. The novel takes little time to explain the reasons behind Marianne’s growing affection for him, making their reimagined romance feel far more meaningful and grounded in the film.

Rickman’s nuanced, restrained, and tortured performance only adds to his character’s emotional depth—and at first glance contains echoes of Firth’s Darcy (as The Atlantic’s Megan Garber noted, the late actor also shone as a romantic lead). And yet Darcy is ultimately distant, while Rickman’s Brandon is an uninhibitedly intimate and dependable figure for the women around him—regardless of what he stands to gain from them. His “manliness” goes beyond superficial displays of heroism, and his romantic appeal stems from how unlike the handsome hedonist Willoughby he is. The changes Lee and Thompson made to Austen’s original story meant the title Sense and Sensibility no longer alluded to just the characteristics of its heroines. It now applied to the heroes as well, with Rickman and Grant’s characters proving men could combine a heightened emotional sensitivity (“sensibility”) with the traditionally masculine bedrock of clear-eyed rationality (“sense”).

Sense and Sensibility’s Grant and Rickman emerged out of a moment that—Braveheart aside—was nonetheless beginning to grasp more widely the cultural value in examining and unsettling gender roles from the male side. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist known for his view that gender equality is good for men and women, published his work of cultural history, Manhood in America, in 1996. The year also saw films like Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise’s character’s ability to bond with a single mother’s son proves his romantic mettle. (In one scene, Maguire even wins over a roomful of stereotypically angry divorced women.) Also in 1996, the Coen Brothers’ critically acclaimed Fargo lampooned the fraught masculinities of its male characters. As The Dissolve’s Tasha Robinson noted, “Ultimately, all the men in this film are poseurs in various ways—except maybe Norm (Gunderson), who expresses his masculinity by defiantly cooking eggs for his wife so she can go off to work well-fed. As a result, he’s the one who winds up happy, free, and alive.”

Sense and Sensibility served as a turning point, proving that pro-feminist masculinity in Austen adaptations would live on. Thanks to Lee and Thompson, Austen’s heroes were not to remain pride-filled prigs in search of sassy take-downs. They were reborn on screen—through Rickman and Grant—as irresistible nurturers, influencing not only how people reread the novel today but also how they reimagine the history of sense and sensibility in men.