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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Playing it safe

Early in the Hallmark Channel’s new adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the recently bereaved Dashwood women stand on the front steps of their longtime home awaiting the relatives who have inherited in their stead and will soon take up residence.

 

As the favored John Dashwood steps out of his carriage, the adaptation seems poised to give this poignant scene of usurpation and displacement a newly provocative edge—for Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters are Black, while their stepson/half-brother, John, is white.

 

Momentarily, I was thrilled. Perhaps Hallmark’s decision to mount a period Jane Austen adaptation with a mostly Black cast wasn’t just a publicity gimmick! Perhaps it was evidence that a new point of view had been brought to bear on the familiar story!

 

Alas, no. Rather than breaking new ground, this film--which aired on Saturday as the fourth and final installment in Hallmark’s “Loveuary with Jane Austen” series—turns out to be an oddly lifeless take on Austen’s first published novel. It’s calm and decorous to a fault, Sense and Sensibility without a pulse.

 

Scenes move at an uneven pace, with some actors hurriedly swallowing half their dialogue while others gingerly ar-tic-u-late each syll-a-ble as if attempting a particularly nasty tongue-twister. At the same time, the eighty-four-minute runtime--nearly an hour shorter than the 1995 Emma Thompson/Ang Lee adaptation--forces the plot to proceed at breakneck speed, leaving little room for characters and relationships to develop organically.

 

It doesn’t help that the frequently limp dialogue is studded with anachronisms like “budget” and “sell yourself short” and “went missing.” Or that some scenes are far staider than Austen’s original (the Ferrars family reacting with genteel disdain, rather than hysteria, to the announcement of Edward’s secret engagement), while others are ridiculously over the top (Marianne calling Mrs. Ferrars names and storming out of her dinner party).

 

Mostly, though, what rankles is the missed opportunity to do more with the implications of the diversified casting. Introducing actors of color into the traditionally lily-white realm of period drama requires a decision: Does race exist in the world of the story, in which case the historically unusual presence of, say, Black people among Austen’s landed gentry would be a matter for comment by the characters? Or is race invisible in the world of the story, with the casting just a matter of choosing the best actor for each role, regardless of skin color? (More questions follow: Does seeing actors of color in period drama help viewers of color find themselves in classic stories? Does making race invisible elide the historical reality of racism in a problematic way? Is that an acceptable tradeoff if it means providing more professional opportunities for actors of color in the here and now? )

 

Different productions make different choices about how to handle these issues. The interesting 2019 movie The Personal History of David Copperfield ignores race entirely, even in the casting of actors playing members of the same families. The delightful Bridgerton series invents an in-universe explanation for the presence of Black aristocrats in its fantasy version of Regency England. The controversial (aka execrable) 2022 Persuasion casts Black actors as the Musgrove family and an actor of Asian descent as Mr. Elliot, but no one inside the world of the story seems to notice.

 

In other words, diversifying period-drama casting doesn’t entail any particular artistic approach. What’s disappointing about the Hallmark Sense and Sensibility is that it makes non-traditional casting nothing more than an excuse for “little Easter eggs,” to quote one Hallmark executive, when it could have used race as a way to find new resonances in Austen’s story about the ways that money and power distort human relationships.

 

Thus, Willoughby and Marianne discover that their mutual favorite poet is the African American Phillis Wheatley,* and a famous painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle--the mixed-race Regency woman raised by her great-uncle, the Lord Chief Justice of England--hangs on the wall of Sir John Middleton’s dining room. But a chance to give a more sinister meaning to Fanny Dashwood’s insistence that her (white) brother marry “the right kind of woman,” rather than the (Black) woman he is obviously falling for, is squandered, because both Fanny and her mother are also played by non-white actors.

 

Apparently, this is a world in which race is invisible. Except that it isn’t, at least to the viewing audience, which is presumably why Edward Ferrars, played by the white actor Dan Jeannotte, announces that he and Fanny, played by the mixed-race actress Carlyss Peer, are step-siblings, rather than the full siblings of Austen’s novel. Indeed, it’s the very fact that race is utterly salient in contemporary American life that surely explains why Hallmark, the epitome of non-controversial middle-brow branding, decided to make a Black Sense and Sensibility that has so little to say about it.

 

The production isn’t all bad: The elaborate costumes and hairstyles are several cuts above the Hallmark average, Deborah Ayorinde makes for a dignified and affecting Elinor, and Martina Laird seems to be having a great deal of fun playing gossipy Mrs. Jennings. But it’s hard not to regret the far more interesting movie that Hallmark decided not to make.



* Janeites who noticed the heroine's mispronunciation of the poet Cowper’s name in the first Loveuary offering, Paging Mr. Darcy—and that heroine an academic, who would surely know to say “Cooper”!—will be equally appalled to hear Marianne (like Austen herself, a devotee of his poetry) repeat the mistake here.

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6 Comments


Kylowna Moton
Kylowna Moton
Apr 08

Hi Deborah, I just wanted to come back here and let you know that I HAVE been trying to watch these movies via streaming, but Hallmark outsmarted me, and they do not allow free streaming of these films. I couldn't sign up for a trial--or a full subscription--and watch them all. I have to wait for them to be rebroadcast and hope I am available to see them. Grrr! We do have cable now, and I'm still trying to see at least a couple of them...we'll see how it goes.


Cheers!

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Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
Apr 09
Replying to

Good luck -- I'll be eager to hear what you think!

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Kylowna Moton
Kylowna Moton
Feb 26

Oh no! I’m kind of bummed that Hallmark…well…hallmarked this film. I was looking forward to seeing this one. I am reminded why I never watch anything on this channel.


Thanks again for the insightful commentary!

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Deborah Yaffe
Deborah Yaffe
Feb 27
Replying to

(Mostly worse, these days, I fear!)

If you watch the S&S, come back and tell us what you thought!

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