Respectable street

Though it doesn't entirely live up to The Heiress, Washington Square is an astute piece of social observation

The ending presents as many, though altogether different, problems here as it did in The Heiress. The latter pulls off a clever bit of sleight of hand that didn't become apparent to me until after several viewings. That is, the final sequence offers catharsis through the strength of Catherine's revenge against Morris. But her revenge has depth only if the film believes that Morris has truly come to love her: If that was Wyler's intention, there's nothing in Clift's performance to bear it out. But the subliminal power of the staging, the lighting, the camera moves, de Havilland's performance, and Aaron Copland's score are more than enough to finesse us past this inconsistency.

While Holland's version sticks closer to James' ending, it seems even more drained of emotional power. Where Wyler had Catherine devoting most of her time to solitary tatting, Holland emphasizes Catherine's loving ministrations to the neighborhood children. While this may have been intended to make her less pathetic, it nearly removes all sadness from the story. "Gee," you think to yourself, "Catherine seems to have a pretty dandy life now, all things considered...except for the fact that she's single."

And, of course, from a contemporary perspective, being single no longer seems quite such a big deal. One might legitimately come away from the new film thinking that Catherine was lucky to have ended up, as it used to be said, a spinster; we see little to suggest that her life is any worse or less fulfilling than that of her married cousin Marian. There is no trace of the bitter coldness that, in The Heiress, seemed to have destroyed Catherine's life.

In spite of this, Washington Square is an admirable, interesting, socially and psychologically acute film, with uniformly first-rate performances, technical bravura...and an almost passionless acceptance of its heroine's fate.

Washington Square.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Written by Carol Doyle; based on the novel by Henry James. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin, Maggie Smith, and Judith Ivey. Opens Friday.

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