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.