Washington Square

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Agnieszka Holland

REVIEWED: 12-15-97

Recent releases show two approaches to filming the novels of Henry James. Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady emphasizes theme over character and production design over all else, and the result is cold and lifeless. Iain Softley's The Wings of the Dove emphasizes character over theme, and it succeeds in finding the chilly tragedy at the heart of its romance.

Of the two models, director Agnieszka Holland and writer Carol Doyle wisely choose the latter for their adaptation of Washington Square, an exploration of the struggle between familial and romantic love. Its unforgiving close-ups of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Ben Chaplin communicate the essence of the expectations and pressures that bind these very ordinary people. If the production lacks the emotional sweep and passionate fire of Softley's interpretation, it is because Holland consciously refuses to cast beautiful people on a grand stage. Instead, her clinical camera records warts and all, leaving it up to us to allocate our sympathy among the characters--and to realize, soberingly, that we cannot judge any of them by their actions alone.

James' novel was previously filmed by William Wyler in 1949 as The Heiress. Those familiar with that version will barely recognize Leigh as Catherine Sloper, the socially inept and terminally nervous young woman whose father (Finney) has never forgiven her for living through the childbirth that killed her mother. When handsome Morris Townsend (Chaplin) courts the plain, unaccomplished girl, her father denounces the penniless orphan as a fortune hunter and threatens to disinherit Catherine if they wed.

Washington Square's early scenes play up Catherine's comic clumsiness and mouth-breathing terror in casual conversation. Her father's callous assessment of the girl as without charm, wit, or beauty seems entirely warranted, especially when Holland places Leigh's sharp, unadorned features next to natural beauties. The romantic illusions of Catherine's aunt (Maggie Smith), who wants to manage the young lovers' assignations, warp her own weird attachment to Morris while Catherine and her father travel in Europe. And Morris himself seems sincere, but the film encourages us to ask what, in fact, draws him to the colorless heiress. At various times, every character is able to justify him or herself in our eyes, allowing the construction of a remarkably balanced portrait that keeps us interested throughout.

It's tempting, when a movie is more difficult and demanding on an audience, to attribute more depth to it. But Holland's shadowy, tightly buttoned New York is no more revelatory a stage for James' obsessions than Softley's golden, dishabille Venice. Perhaps Softley's material has greater inherent depths; the plot of Washington Square is the by-now familiar Austen-esque tale of a woman who thinks love is denied her. But Holland's exercise in the omniscient point of view, which forces us into loyalty with first one character, then another, is a fascinating technique in its own right, and uniquely appropriate to this material. A double feature of The Wings of the Dove and Washington Square has enough first-rate acting and incisive characterization to last, in memory, through the long, looming winter of epics and billion-dollar budgets.

--Donna Bowman

Full Length Reviews
Washington Square
Washington Square

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