PBS’s “Complete Jane Austen” project ends on a high note, with a delightful version of Sense & Sensibility from screenwriter Andrew Davies, British TV’s dean of the literary adaptation. Taking good advantage of the generous running time, Davies’s script preserves the sense of wistful longing at the heart of the story, while also locating a vein of humor in its Cinderella-like setup. Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield occupy the center as Elinor and Marianne Dashwood respectively, who are exiled from a comfy country house to a dingy cottage along with their mother (the always superb Janet McTeer) and precocious kid sis Margaret (Lucy Boynton) by one of those quirks of inheritance law that were an Austen specialty. Most English majors (and viewers of Ang Lee’s 1995 version) probably recall what happens next—17-year-old Marianne has to choose between Mr. Willoughby (Dominic Cooper), an age-appropriate cad, and a dignified suitor twice her age (David Morrissey); Elinor, meanwhile, pines for handsome minister Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens), brother of the evil in-law who is behind the Dashwood’s troubles.
Willoughby is so transparently a rake—his seduction of Marianne goes further than in other adaptations—that it’s hard to get terribly invested in that side of the story (it also doesn’t help that Morrissey is much older than his character). As in the 1995 film, the most compelling aspect is the relationship between Elinor and Edward. As Morahan is younger than Emma Thompson was, Elinor’s fear of old-maidhood is less of an issue, with more conflict coming from uncertainty over whether Edward will stay true to his values. The question is answered in a moment made so cathartic by Morahan that even those who know what’s coming may find themselves wiping away tears.