It is not an enjoyable task to write a negative review of Scents and Sensibility, especially as the producers were kind enough to show the film as part of the movie marathon Friday night at the 2011 JASNA Annual General Meeting in Fort Worth. And even though the movie was — well, not as good as one could hope — it was still entertaining and moreover allows me an opportunity to examine the difficulties in bringing the plot of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility into the modern day.
NOTE: This will be a fairly detailed review and there are spoilers, especially if you have yet to read the original. I will refrain from mentioning the reason a character is unjustly accused and the reason for Elinor and Marianne being estranged.
A knock at the door heralds the arrival of the FBI, and Mr. Dashwood is arrested for running a Ponzi scheme and in short order is sentenced to 75 years, leaving the Dashwood women penniless and homeless after a quick sequence of asset seizure and home lien. Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret go to live with a relative, removing them from most of the picture. Elinor and Marianne resolve to find work, hoping to make enough to afford an apartment and the $3,000 a month (I may have the numbers wrong) leukemia medication for Margaret. At this point there was inappropriate laughter from at least two people in the audience (myself and the woman next to me), but I suspect there were others laughing.
Unfortunately Elinor’s attempts to find work is thwarted by the Dashwood Investments on her resume. She even fails as a sign spinner wearing a gorilla suit outside a strip mall. She finally finds work as a maid at the day spa owned by Fran Farris (JJ Neward), but only after the intervention of Fran’s assistant, whose nametag reads Lucy (Jaclyn Hales).
Meanwhile Marianne finds work — because she’s clever enough to change her last name — in the copy room of an advertising company where she meets Brandon (Nick Zano), a handsome young man her age. Their first meeting is complicated when she is told by her superior to print, collate and bind Brandon’s presentation, even though she has found and has offered to fix a typo on the front page. Brandon accuses her of sloppiness but later apologizes.
And did I mention that Marianne’s hobby is creating scented lotions, which we saw her doing before the FBI burst in at the beginning. She gives Elinor her newest formula, which eases the pain in her hands after a hard day scrubbing toilets. Elinor also offers the lotion to a customer (Mrs. Jennings in a cameo), who buys a bottle and tells her friends. Soon everyone wants a bottle.
We’re finally introduced to Edward Farris (Brad Johnson) when he discovers Elinor singing to herself while cleaning the bathrooms; it’s a cute scene. Edward later asks his sister Fran about Elinor, after he’s been advising her that the day spa is losing money and she risks bankruptcy.
So that’s the set up and you can see we’ve lost many major characters and most of the themes and juxtapositions of Austen’s original. Most importantly we’ve lost the distinction between Elinor and Marianne. Despite her love of flowers, Marianne seems quite practical. Yes, she moans a little at the loss of their big screen TV, used to buy a broken down pick up, but her complaint is not meant seriously. Another major change is that Brandon quickly supplants Willoughby, whose deceit is obvious to the viewer from the beginning and soon apparent to Marianne, who spots him on the street with another woman. And his manner has not the elegance and charm of Jane’s Willoughby; we practically see him in his underwear, drinking beer, burping and playing his Xbox while pretending to be in Zurich (the underwear and burping are my inventions). Marianne also displays little upset over Willoughby’s deception.
We also lose the delicate balance of plot elements of the original: Edward’s prior engagement, Mrs. Ferrar’s displeasure, the granting of the living, the kindness of Sir John Middleton and John Dashwood’s claim to Norland Park. Instead we are reduced to Fran Farris plotting to steal first the ingredients of Marianne’s wonder lotion and later the exact process, with an eye to selling the formula to a pharmaceutical company. For the first plan, she employs Lucy, who uses the base of a fire extinguisher to break into Elinor’s locker and steal a bottle. And to recover the formula, she blackmails Willoughby to insinuate himself back into Marianne’s life.
I’m unclear how Fran Farris knew Willoughby, and I also find suspect her power over Willoughby — disclosure to his family over Willoughby’s fathering a child out of wedlock. I don’t see a modern family writing someone out of the will for such an offense. In fact most of Austen’s plot complications no longer work. In her day, seduction and insinuation took months. In the present day, if Willoughby is denied one woman with money, he simply goes on facebook to find another.
Bad as the movie was, I would recommend watching it. There is an earnestness in the performances and a sweetness that reminds me of Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman. It is unintentionally funny (it really demands robot silhouettes) and I would recommend to the producers they remake the film as a parody. Seeing Lucy whacking the locker was quite funny; and it would have been funnier still to have Elinor find the locker with the door hanging by one hinge, the fire extinguisher on the floor next to Lucy’s name badge, and then confront Lucy, still sweating from her labors, her hair askew, and see her deny any involvement.
I fear the movie will not appeal to any other than Austen fans, however. The use of competent but unknown actors, the shot on video look and the bland sets (it would have more amusing to see Elinor and Marianne in greatly reduced circumstances rather than the expensive apartment that explains their inability to raise the money for Margaret’s medication) makes the film unappealing to non-Janeites.
Nevertheless, I did enjoy watching the film but in the charged atmosphere of the AGM, how could I not enjoy watching almost anything Austen related?
The movie was directed by Brian Brough and the screenwriters were Jennifer Jan and Brittany Wiscombe. The producers have offered to show the film at regional JASNA groups and also talked about a Jane Austen television series.