After earning worldwide accolades for her superb 1993 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's classic The Secret Garden, Polish-born writer-director Agnieszka Holland is well aware that her equally intense new film version of Henry James' novella Washington Square may pigeonhole her as a kind of reference librarian of world cinema. In her mind, there are worse fates.
"The original scripts I write tend to be dark, intense meditations," confirms the charming but sardonic, bespectacled gnome of a filmmaker in her heavy Eastern European accent. "Frankly, I am often left exhausted from the journey. Filming these great works lets me recharge my battery; I'm able to find a cinematic language for someone else's obsessions."
For two decades, Holland's movie language has been in the vernacular of sorrow. She didn't really grab the lapels of international art-house audiences until her 1991 hit Europa, Europa, the saga of a young Jewish man who disguises himself as an enthusiastic fascist in the Nazi youth movement of 1930s Germany to escape persecution. Her little-seen but even more haunting follow-up, Olivier, Olivier, documented the implosion of a middle-class French family after their long-gone son returns--a prostitute, a manipulator, and, they soon begin to fear (or is it hope?), an impostor. Her problematic, critically lambasted Total Eclipse, based on Christopher Hamton's play about the tortured romance between French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, examined the conflict between class-based morality and intellectual adventure by documenting Verlaine's fall from his society's good graces. Do we detect a common theme here?
"All my films, whether I write them or not, are concerned with identity," Holland confirms. "I am fascinated by the question: Is there such a thing as a self, a pure internal light? Is it possible to separate ourselves from what others think, do, and say about us?"
With lyrical precision, Holland's terrific adaptation of Henry James' 1880 short novel Washington Square charts one woman's journey to emotional independence. During the course of the film, adapted with scrupulous fidelity to the book by debut screenwriter Carol Doyle, the painfully shy heiress Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) realizes she's become a pawn in the personal agendas of the three people closest to her: her father, Austin (Albert Finney), an imperious and ruthlessly sarcastic widowed doctor; her aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith), a dithery widow who nearly smothers her niece with her own romantic fantasies; and suitor Morris (Ben Chaplin), a handsome but irresponsible rogue who's surely only interested in Catherine for her fortune.
But as in James' typically verbose 19th-century study of family and class politics, the principals in Holland's Washington Square aren't so easily psychoanalyzed. Almost every word and any action can be viewed from the angle of selfishness or selflessness, even Catherine's. For those who adore William Wyler's 1949 film version The Heiress and Olivia de Havilland's spacy, trembling-dove performance, Holland's (and Leigh's) interpretation of the innocent and good-hearted Catherine will seem far less sentimental.
"I am not such a big fan of The Heiress," Holland admits. "It was enjoyable as a revenge story, but was very much simplified, made conventional. Before I agreed to direct Washington Square, I watched Wyler's film again, to see if there was any point in doing another version of such a beloved movie. Then I saw there was so much that movie didn't say about these characters, so much neglected from James' story."
When she describes rendering the process of Catherine's disentanglement from her emotional debts to her family and would-be lover in dramatic terms, she brings in outside literary references. "I strove to begin with a Jane Austen, comedy-of-manners style for the start of this unlikely relationship. By the end of the film, we're in Chekhov country, looking at Catherine's world through her changed, mature eyes."
Holland says she is grateful that the film's producers, Roger Birnbaum and Julie Bergman Sender, "respected me enough" to let her cast the principals herself. When the time came to fill the role of Catherine Sloper, Holland found herself being courted as aggressively as her timid heroine.
"For the first time in my career, I really had my pick of leads," she says. "I think every actress of a certain age in Hollywood wanted this part. They could smell it--you know, corsets, beautiful costumes, Oscars, Tonys." "But you have to be careful with actors. They are wily chameleons. If you say you want to cast a hippie, they come acting--and sometimes even dressing--like a hippie."
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Among the many calls Holland received was one from Leigh's agent. Holland was immediately intrigued, she says, "because I'd been a fan of Jennifer's work for a while. But I didn't know if she'd be right for Catherine. I didn't know if she could make that transition from innocence to self-knowledge, because she was famous for playing such jaded women. But when I met her, I was startled. She was almost sickly shy, but very open at the same time. I understood she was in person what she'd rarely let herself be on screen--vulnerable."
Because of the eccentric, ignoble gallery of whores, addicts, and sundry losers that has been Leigh's controversial career, Holland admits, "Jennifer divides audiences. You either love her, or you hate her. But I think the biggest criticism of her work--that she's mannered--is bullshit. She has certainly experimented with voices and attitudes and looks, but most of her performances have been very disciplined. Her choices aren't frivolous; she just takes risks that no other actress today does. Her best performances are unlike anything anyone else is doing. Risk is the process of art."
So far, Washington Square has received near universal praise (Andrew Sarris went so far as to compare some of Holland's images with those of D.W. Griffith's) and a strong box-office performance in New York City, where it opened earlier this month. But from the instant she was hired for the project, the filmmaker was well aware of the risks she was undertaking. As the disastrous critical and commercial reaction that greeted Jane Campion's confused version of Portrait of a Lady proved, wandering into the dense, ruminative prose of Henry James in search of a coherent, involving two-hour movie is a dangerous safari.
"There are those who say Henry James is unfilmable," Holland says, "and in part, I agree with them. It's no surprise that the two best movies based on his work so far--The Innocents (from The Turn of the Screw) and The Heiress--are from his short novels. I would never be arrogant enough to think I could adapt one of his larger, complex stories. That was part of the problem with Campion's Portrait of a Lady. I didn't buy it emotionally. It glossed over the mystery of Henry James, which probably wasn't available to the director in the first place.