…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds
Or bends with the remover to remove
Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken…
— Shakespeare, Sonnet 116
It’s been a bad year so far for 69-year-old British celebrities. David Bowie and Alan Rickman have both gone to their final reward in quick succession, prompting numerous fan tributes. For Rickman, many moviegoers love and remember him as Snape in Harry Potter. Myself, I am most partial to his turn as Colonel Brandon in the Ang Lee adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He brought such sweetness and wisdom to the part, providing a deliberate contrast to the dashing but untrustworthy Mr. Willoughby. He is almost painfully self-effacing, but as the story unfolds, he emerges as its true hero. In a culture that has long lost all conception of love and honor towards women, Jane Austen’s classic tale and Brandon’s role in it are well worth revisiting.
Miss Dashwood is a teenager when we first meet her, and she already has some very decided notions about the nature of love. Her philosophy is that one can only ever really fall in love once. She has not yet met the love of her life, but she is certain that when she does, he will be both her first and her last. This is typical of girls Marianne’s age, and it’s relatively innocent as notions about love go. However, it sets her up for tragedy and heartbreak.
When she twists her ankle in the rain, a handsome stranger is luckily on hand to offer his assistance in carrying her back home. It’s practically inevitable that she will fall very hard and very fast for said handsome stranger, whose name, we learn, is Willoughby. Mrs. Dashwood is all a-flutter, but one can hardly blame her for getting her hopes up. The family is in a bad financial way, and the daughters’ only ticket out of a humiliating lower middle-class existence is marrying up. They soon learn that in addition to being impossibly good-looking, Willoughby is set to inherit an equally handsome estate.
But the family’s old friend Colonel Brandon has also quietly had his eye on Marianne for some time, though he’s old enough to be her father. The film is wonderful at capturing his deepening affection in subtle moments, like the way he gazes across the room at her while she sings and plays a little tune on the piano:
When she is recovering from her ankle-twisting incident and all flush for Willoughby, Brandon pays a visit with flowers, but he might as well not be there as far as she’s concerned. It comes at an awkward moment as the younger girls are keeping watch for Willoughby’s promised return visit. As a family relation tactlessly notes out loud, “Poor Brandon, you will none of you think of him now!” When Willoughby does arrive to present her with his own floral gift, she gushes, “Oh, how beautiful! These are not from the hot-house.”
When Willoughby picks up her copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets, asks her favorite, then proceeds to quote it word for word, we’re off to the races. He pulls out his own vest pocket copy, and they commence prattling and quoting poetry to each other. It’s a charming sight. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s not that anybody has a concrete reason to suspect Willoughby. Marianne’s older sister Elinor simply cautions “We know so little of him.” Yet even this mild check annoys Marianne. “Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.” “Or seven hours in this case,” adds Elinor dryly.
In the few scenes that Brandon and Willoughby share together, there is a decidedly tense undercurrent to their polite exchanges. Courteous to a fault, Brandon says not a negative word about Willoughby, yet it is clear that he does not fully trust him. Behind Brandon’s back, Willoughby and Marianne share sophomoric giggles about what a stick-in-the-mud the old colonel is. One day, Brandon abruptly leaves his own picnic for an emergency ride to London, prompting Mrs. Dashwood to murmur, “He will be sadly missed.” Willoughby demands, “Why? When he is the kind of man that everyone speaks well of, and nobody wants to talk to.” “Exactly!” agrees Marianne smugly. Before leaving himself, Willoughby earnestly tells Marianne that there is something he wants to ask her in private when they next meet.
Willoughby does come to meet Marianne as promised, but only to say goodbye. He has been mysteriously called to London by his aunt, and he has no plans to return in the foreseeable future. Eventually, we learn that he had seduced and impregnated the young girl we saw with Colonel Brandon. As the girl’s legal guardian, Brandon had informed Willoughby’s aunt, who promptly wrote him out of his inheritance. Having thus had the financial rug pulled out from under him, Willoughby dumped Marianne so he could hunt for a rich wife.
Some of the film’s saddest moments are when Marianne is still pining after Willoughby, not yet knowing his true character, pathetically following him to London and trying to get his attention with letters. He coldly returns them all, along with a lock of her hair that he had cut and kept during their whirlwind infatuation. It is at this point in the story that Colonel Brandon tells Elinor the rest of the story, hoping that the truth will help Marianne. Elinor tries to comfort her with the report from Willoughby’s aunt that Willoughby was genuinely planning to propose to Marianne on the morning he was disowned, so there must have been some love there. “But not enough,” says Marianne quietly. “Not enough.”
The film’s climax comes in London, when Marianne foolishly wanders out in the rain to say goodbye to Willoughby’s house one last time, whispering Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet. She loses her way, shivering wet. And at that moment, it is not Willoughby who finds her and carries her home. When she comes down with marsh fever, it is not Willoughby who fetches Marianne’s mother to be by her side. It is Colonel Brandon, whose love for Marianne has remained, unbending, unaltered, an ever-fixed mark.
After Marianne has passed near death, her fever breaks just as Brandon arrives with her mother. The women all embrace, as Brandon quietly moves to leave the room and close the door behind him. Marianne is exhausted, but she manages to whisper “Colonel Brandon.” He pauses, looking at her. “Thank you.”
Most of their courtship is implied, but we are granted one last scene of them together before the film’s closing double wedding. He is reading aloud from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, as she sits convalescing in the soft spring air:
What though the Sea with Waves continual
Do eat the Earth, it is no more at all;
Nor is the Earth the less, or loseth ought:
For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the Tide unto another brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.
Mrs. Dashwood cannot help re-writing history as she observes them together, declaring she knew all along there was something off about Willoughby. Now she sees that Colonel Brandon has “a far more pleasing countenance.”
Brandon closes the book, but Marianne is eager to hear more. He tells her that he will not be able to return tomorrow, for he is away on some “secret” engagement. She asks with a hint of concern, “You will not stay away along?” He shakes his head, and she smiles, content.
We do see Willoughby one final time. As the two couples march in their marriage procession, the camera draws back to reveal him watching them on his horse from a distance, now very small and insignificant in the frame. Then, slowly, he pulls the horse about and rides away.