Respectable street

Jennifer Jason Leigh follows up one of her smallest and weakest roles--in A Thousand Acres--with a far more challenging and formidable performance in Washington Square. This new film version of Henry James' 1880 short novel chronicles the courtship of a wealthy girl who has no obvious attractive qualities.

But the real challenge here was to director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa; The Secret Garden) and screenwriter Carol Doyle. Despite his stature in American literature, James' work was rarely filmed before the late '70s; even more rarely has it been filmed well. Arguably the best James adaptation to date--running neck and neck with Jack Clayton's 1961 The Innocents, which is based on The Turn of the Screw--is The Heiress, a 1949 William Wyler film adapted from (you guessed it) Washington Square.

Since The Heiress is, on its own terms, nearly perfect (Montgomery Clift's performance as suitor Morris Townsend is its weakest element), one is forced to wonder whether there is any legitimate aesthetic motivation behind a remake. In fact, Washington Square is significantly different from the earlier film--and it succeeds as an engrossing piece of social observation. It's good enough to suggest James as the next 19th-century Hollywood fad, now that the supply of Jane Austen books has been almost exhausted.

The Heiress played fast and loose with James' story. That film preempted criticism by giving James a "suggested by" credit, which was fair enough. Screenwriters Ruth and Augustus Goetz (working from their own play) imposed a far stronger and simpler dramatic structure on James' rambling story. What they sacrificed in terms of realism and psychological complexity was justified by The Heiress' devastating emotional impact.

With Washington Square, Holland and her collaborators have chosen to make a truer version of the book. There may not be a point to filming a second interpretation of The Heiress, but there's enough going on in James' original to leave room for a second version of the book.

The film opens with a long tracking shot--perhaps two or three minutes--that introduces the heroine, her milieu, and the formative circumstances of her unhappiness. The camera looks down over Washington Square circa 1830, swoops down to a brownstone, in a window, through the kitchen, up the steps to the master bedroom where Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney) weeps desperately over his dead wife, and into the nursery, where we see Catherine, the infant whom Mrs. Sloper has died giving birth to. The baby seems wholly helpless and innocent, and so she shall remain for far too long.

A few brief scenes showing Catherine as an adolescent (Sara Ruzicka) quickly suggest that this chubby, graceless child is an embarrassment to the father whom she so desperately loves.

When Catherine grows into a slender young woman (Leigh), she still seems incapable of pleasing her father. So intent is he on measuring her by the impossible standard of his idealized memories of his late wife that he cannot see the charm of her exuberant devotion to him. He strains to treat her with affection, but his impatience and contempt show through.

One day, the Slopers, including Catherine's live-in companion, her Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith), go to the engagement party of her cousin Marian (Jennifer Garner). At the party, Catherine attracts the attention of dashing, rakish Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin, looking strikingly like Clift), who seems utterly taken with her. Catherine falls so desperately, totally in love that she becomes even clumsier and more tongue-tied than usual--which only seems to charm Morris into an equal clumsiness.

Morris takes to calling on Catherine every day. Dr. Sloper, upon sizing him up, concludes that he is a gold-digger, pure and simple. Even before sizing him up, the doctor is almost sure: After all, what besides her money could possibly attract any eligible young man to Catherine?

Much like Christopher Hampton--whose recent adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent cleaved to the book rather than to Hitchcock's film version and generally suffered for it--the filmmakers' determination not to settle for a superfluous remake results in something less great than its predecessor, whatever virtues it may display.

In certain specifics, the new version bests The Heiress. Clift's Morris was a clear-cut bounder; we never for a moment believed his intentions. Chaplin's performance, on the other hand, leaves open the possibility that Morris actually may love Catherine--albeit in a selfish way. And Finney gives Dr. Sloper an initial degree of charm totally absent in Ralph Richardson's icier interpretation; we are likelier to see him as a flawed human being than an out-and-out S.O.B., even when his stubbornness seems far fiercer than Richardson suggested.

The casting of the lead always presents a problem in this story: James never suggests that Catherine is ugly, merely plain. The Heiress did a good job of muting Olivia de Havilland's beauty, but, hey, she still had Hollywood movie-star looks. Leigh may not be as classically beautiful, but she's far too cute here to seem as unmarriageable as the story requires. Leigh is truer to the character's lack of social skills, but, because Holland plays Catherine's ineptness for broad comedy--something that never would have occurred to Wyler--her flaws seem more charming than off-putting.

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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