When Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility came out in 1995 I marvelled that a Taiwanese film director could so perfectly capture the pure Englishness of Jane Austin. At the time I spoke about it to an Asian film critic in Johannesburg, and he likened it to Ang Lee’s Taiwanese film, Eat Drink Man Woman, which also dealt with the idea that romantic relationships give life meaning, arguing that putting that concept into an English setting was not such a stretch. Since then Ang Lee has perfectly captured an American sensibility in films like The Ice Storm, about two dysfunctional Connecticut families, and Brokeback Mountain, about “the love that dare not speak its name” (while also not losing sight of his Asian roots, with his magical film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
This weekend I watched the film, Away We Go, by the British director, Sam Mendes.
Here is the situation in reverse, as it were. Sam Mendes had already made a name for himself as a stage director in Britain before his first foray into film, American Beauty, won him an Academy Award. He’s followed that up with the mobster film, Road to Perdition, the US Marine film, Jarhead, and Revolutionary Road, which took a bleak look at American suburbia. All of them, in their own unique way, felt American through and through. In Away We Go, as a couple in their 30’s try out Arizona, Wisconsin, Montreal and Miami in their search for the perfect place to put down roots and start a family, not only are the places perfectly captured but also the people in those places. It seems remarkable to me that and Englishman would have the capacity to pick up so accurately (albeit in a comic way) the nuances of America and an American way life.
It opens up the whole question of talent and creativity, I suppose. Emanuel Ax, who was born in Poland and then came to live in the States (by way of Canada), plays Chopin’s music exquisitely, and one is tempted to think that he has a special feeling for it because of his Polish roots. Yet, Maurizio Pollini (Italian) and Alfred Brendel (Austrian) are also great interpreters of Chopin’s music. Leonard Bernstein was not only an inspired conductor of American composers like Aaron Copland, Charles Ives and George Gershwin (not to mention himself!) but was also a great champion of Gustav Mahler. So, true talent and creativity make it possible to explore outside one’s own experience.
To come back to Jane Austin, she worked on a particular, subtle palette, one that was not so far removed from her own experience. But what about Charlotte and Emily Brontë, who lived such secluded lives as daughters of a clergyman in Yorkshire? Where on earth did such worldly and almost demonic characters as Heathcliff and Rochester come from? That ability to stretch one’s talent and imagination beyond oneself, to capture another world, is wonderful in the true sense of the word. And a little daunting.