Once or twice a year, if we’re lucky, the movies put a new spin on love (this year it happened in Richard Linklater’s stardust talkathon, Before Sunrise). The vast majority of romantic movies, however, are painstakingly old-fashioned spectacles, forever glancing over their shoulders to a more innocent, moonstruck time. It’s easy to see why: In an era that fancies itself too cool for passion, the very notion of romance can seem a wistful remembrance of things past. Witness the two deluxe love stories of the season. Sabrina (Paramount, PG), directed by Sydney Pollack, updates Billy Wilder’s top-heavy souffle of a romantic comedy, with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond taking on the roles played in 1954 by Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn. Sense and Sensibility (Columbia, PG), directed by Ang Lee and written by its star, Emma Thompson, is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about two sisters whose search for love leads them to strike a mystical balance between head and heart. Both films make ardent attempts to seduce our hearts, though only one is likely to leave audiences swooning.
Few actresses would dare to redo a role made famous by Audrey Hepburn, that incandescent waif-princess, but Julia Ormond is up to the challenge. It’s not just that she resembles Hepburn—though with her high, angelic British cheekbones and sunbeam of a smile, she evokes Hepburn’s dazzling aristocratic delicacy. It’s also that she knows how to turn her eyes on someone as if nothing else in the world existed. In Sabrina, she starts out incognito, with frumpy hair and steel spectacles that make her look like she’s auditioning for The Mia Farrow Story. Mousy and awkward, Ormond’s Sabrina is a chauffeur’s daughter who has spent her girlhood coveting the luxurious lives of the Larrabees, the filthy rich Long Island family that employs her father. In particular, she adores David (Greg Kinnear), the family’s goofy but handsome playboy son. But he barely registers her existence, and neither does his older brother, Linus (Ford), a steely workaholic tycoon who devotes his days to hatching corporate takeovers.
Sabrina goes off to Paris and — voila! — she returns to Long Island looking like she just stepped from the pages of Vogue. Her transformation may come out of nowhere, but the moment Ormond turns on her 500-watt smile, it hardly matters: We’re melting, and so is everyone around her. At this point, Sabrina becomes a virtual scene-for-scene remake of the original. David falls hard for Sabrina, even though he’s engaged to Elizabeth (Lauren Holly), daughter of the Tyson empire. (Their marriage will seal a lucrative merger between the families.) To avoid screwing up the deal, Linus, the icy loner, takes it upon himself to woo Sabrina away. The catch is, he only thinks he doesn’t have his heart in it.
The original Sabrina is one of the more eccentric of Hollywood fables. With the young Hepburn turning her radiance on Bogart at his most sour-mash depressive, it’s saccharine in a slightly queasy way—we might be watching the tender romantic awakening of Bob Dole. Ford works hard to breathe life into the tricky role of Linus, a manipulative bastard who’s softer than he looks. This is a Cinderella fantasy in which Cinderella has to rescue the prince, and Ford’s quiet melancholy sneaks up on you (just as it does on Sabrina). Much of the time, though, he’s stolid and slightly robotic. The new Sabrina is both pokier and gauzier than the original. As a character, Linus no longer makes sense: He’s a tough, virile wheeler-dealer who seems like a virgin. You may find your sympathies shifting over to Kinnear, a puppyish smart aleck who, in his first film role, brings an endearing innocence to David, the short-attention-span romantic. The character may be ridiculous, but at least he has some snap. The movie could have used more of it.
Sense and Sensibility is probably the slightest of Jane Austen’s novels, and that may be why it has now been turned into a lushly engaging comedy of romantic mishap: Its passions are as perfectly parsed as its storyline. In the serene West Country of England, two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, both fall for suitors who mirror their own temperaments. Elinor (Thompson), the cautious, reflective woman of ”sense,” comes under the shy spell of Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant), a young man as achingly polite as she is. Meanwhile, the younger, more recklessly emotional Marianne (Kate Winslet), who longs to live by the wild whims of ”sensibility,” is literally swept off her feet by John Willoughby (Greg Wise), a comically dashing, poetry-spouting Mr. Right who’s as full of himself as Buzz Lightyear. The two men go off to London, and the women follow—only to learn that they’ve been displaced by rivals. Marianne reacts according to her nature, succumbing to sickly despair, while Elinor is willing to wait and wait and wait some more.
The pleasure of Sense and Sensibility lies in the way that Lee’s elegant staging and the uniformly fine performances theatricalize Austen’s vision of manner as character. It’s easy to revel in the gossipy exuberance of Mrs. Jennings (Elizabeth Spriggs), who takes the family under her wing, or in the way Grant’s character is revealed through his posture, his head sunk between the shoulders like an earnest egg. Winslet’s Marianne is all palpitating girlish ardor, and Thompson, as always, makes you feel the vital emotional undertow of a sane, moral mind.
The most jarring disruption of Austen is the fact that Thompson is too old for her role (in the book, the sisters are 17 and 19). This is more than a detail of vanity: It upsets the philosophical symbiosis of the novel, in which we’re hearing a dialogue of equals, rather than a wise older sister and an impetuous younger one. As Austen adaptations go, Sense and Sensibility lacks the impassioned gravity of this year’s Persuasion. Yet the film luminously evokes Austen’s vision of the dance of the sexes: the Dashwood sisters, caught up in lovestruck dreams built on fears of destitution; and the men, compulsively fickle except for the temperate devotion of Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), a wallflower humanized by his secret dark past. The final romantic epiphany is a stunner, at once rapturous and funny, as Thompson, choking with joy, expresses the yearning that has been building over the film’s two and a quarter hours. By the end, Sense and Sensibility just about glows with the old-fashioned belief that all you need, indeed, is love. Sabrina: B- Sense and Sensibility: B+