Washington Square

(USA - 1997)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin, Maggie Smith
Genre: Drama
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Screenplay: Carol Doyle, based on the novel by Henry James
Cinematography: Jerzy Zielinski
Composer: Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Runtime: 115 minutes

The latest adaptation of the well-known Henry James novel. The first, 1949's The Heiress, won Olivia de Haviland a best actress Oscar. The current, boasting yet another remarkable performance by the superior Jennifer Jason Leigh was, of course, ignored. Leigh is best known for her bold, fearless, uninhibited performances, but here she is almost as exceptional playing a character that's totally opposite and unlike any she's every played before.

James often wrote about the heart vs. the $, and this was no exception. Selfishness is the other key theme. What stands out about the writing of Washington Square is how the characters are able to surprise you. When put in a difficult position or pressed, it's amazing what some people are capable of.

The characters are all well drawn. Albert Finney is perfect as Dr. Austin Sloper, far better than he was when he got nominated for Erin Crockovshit, but that's expected since this role was actually worthy of him. He has the aura, stature, and cunning to control everyone either directly or indirectly. He's not at all violent, but you fear him because he's so certain of his critique and judgements, which he regularly gives, with no consideration for anyone's feelings. I don't know if he does any surgery, but his words cut to the bone.

As Catherine Sloper, Leigh starts off totally shelled up. She is so meek and timid. She has no idea how to act around a man she's interested in because no one has ever been interested in her and she lacks the courage to take the initiative. It's not her fault, Austin has created a woman that is not appealing for the simple reason that if she were appealing she would do more than amuse daddy in his own perverse ways. Did he do it out of resentment toward his daughter over his wife dying giving birth to her or because he has no one else? Her character is sadly pathetic in the beginning, but that's because her great will has been so utterly repressed. The beauty of Leigh's performance is how she can make a half step seem like a medaling long jump, the smallest act seem like a great triumph. Her character grows so much throughout the movie in so many different ways, but with Leigh's portrayal it's never a question of believability.

Ben Chaplin is effective as the good-looking, money lacking Morris Townsend. He likes attention, but is clumsy like Catherine. I liked the ambiguity he brought to his character. He likes Catherine and he likes her money. How much he likes the money, we don't know. The money aspect makes him change, get a good job, but is he changing to be worthy of Catherine or to not be seen as a deadbeat by Austin? We can't blame him for liking the money because anyone would choose the goose with the golden egg over simply the goose.

The story shows they many negative effects of money. Those who have it become overly concerned with protecting it. Those who don't become overly concerned with attaining it. Both put it above their relationships with others. This robs Catherine of her innocence and purity.

Catherine is a sad character because of the money aspect, but also because of her father upbringing. The real tragedy of the story is she spends it working for the love of men that aren't worthy of it. She's a person that could have been so much more, but had it ingrained in her that she was so much less. With that mentality and the restrictions the inheritance factor places on her, her options are limited. The men with money don't need her and the ones without money won't be allowed to marry her. What drives the money aspect home more is Catherine doesn't even spend the majority of what her mother left her each month. It's not a problem for her to give up her father's money, but to give up her father's "love."

One thing the movie shows well is how much an awakening can hurt. Catherine gains many of the qualities she was so lacking at the start of the film, confidence and independence for example, but they come at a price. When she didn't know any better, she was content and believed her father had her best interest at heart. Naivete is not the answer, but it's much more painless than passion and desire.

Although it's a period piece about a rich family, this is not a costume ball with lush settings. That's not a surprise coming from Agnieszka Holland, who directed the excellent Europa Europa and very good Olivier, Olivier among others. She is a director that is interested in realism, no matter how cruel it may be, and thus is not going to glitz things up. Although the music is quite effective, there is definitely some weakness in the production. The long opening is splendid, but the camera movement is often rather curious, if not odd. There's a nice scene on the Alps, but one has to wonder why they would go climbing in that attire and how they made it up without so much as a spot on their outfits. It's not the movie you look to for excitement, but the writing and acting make it very worthwhile.


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