Friday October 10, 1997
In 19th century New York, "Washington Square" was as much a state of mind as an address. It represented wealth, status and the power of an autocratic society that was inflexible toward those living under it.
As created by novelist Henry James, the tortured romantic life of Catherine Sloper of Washington Square had a haunting, unsettling quality attractive to filmmakers. Director William Wyler had one of his biggest successes with 1949's "The Heiress," starring Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Olivia de Havilland, who won an Oscar for portraying the struggling Catherine.
Agnieszka Holland, whose credits range from "The Secret Garden" to "Total Eclipse," is the latest director to be seduced by Catherine's woes. As written by debut screenwriter Carol Doyle, this version of the James novella takes a different tack than the Wyler version, which was based on a successful play. But, hampered by widely divergent performances and a troubling tendency toward the obvious, the result is not a success.
This lack of subtlety in "Washington Square" is especially troubling because James was a writer to whom nuance and inference were everything. Even if the brooding, complex "Heiress" hadn't existed as a touchstone, this film's broad-brush sensibility, its insistence, to take one example, on the symbolic value of caged birds, weakens it in terms of dramatic interest.
What this "Washington Square" does have is a determination to open the story up visually. So Jerzy Zielinski's camera promenades through the square itself (shot in Baltimore because New York's has become decidedly bohemian) and visits locales like a large family wedding and a rowdy, distinctly non-Jamesian tavern/bordello.
Time is also taken to illustrate the back story of Catherine and her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney). We see the disaster of her birth, which cost Dr. Sloper his beloved wife and caused him to harden his heart against his infant daughter. And we see the girl as a teenage chubbette, pathetically eager to please the haughty doctor even though it hardly seems possible.
By the time Jennifer Jason Leigh comes on to play the adult Catherine, her personality seems to be set. Plain in looks, awkward in manner, with gauche taste and an inability to be comfortable in her own skin, Catherine is the despair not only of her distant father but also of her flighty aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith). Her major asset, or so her father thinks, is the sizable inheritance she will come into upon his death.
Then a young man named Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin) enters Catherine's life. Charming and sensually handsome, he claims to think of her not as awkward but rather as "a woman without guile." Together, he promises, they'll find sanctuary from the world's pain.
Naturally, Catherine flowers under this attention, and the young man is much favored by her romantic aunt. But Dr. Sloper, the autocrat of the breakfast and whatever other tables he occupies, is not so easily moved. To his mind, Townsend's lack of employment makes him a fortune hunter, someone whose purely mercenary nature his daughter is too simple-minded to comprehend.
Because Wyler's "The Heiress" had the advantage of a marvelously ambiguous performance by Montgomery Clift, much of the film's interest was taken up by the question of Townsend's sincerity. "Washington Square," by design, has another, equally valid focus and that is the agony of Catherine's dilemma, forced to choose between a tyrannical father she loves and an equally obdurate suitor who doesn't want to marry without parental permission.
Not for Jennifer Jason Leigh, apparently, are lighthearted characters who have an easy time with life. Her graceless Catherine, all fidgets and twitches, is squarely within her range and interest, and Jason Leigh provides her with fine moments when she looks truly haunted and on the edge of hysteria.
But even this performance, the film's solid center, could have used some modulation, and when it comes to Finney and Smith, their work is so caricatured and overdone that it throws the entire film out of balance. Even the natural and believable Chaplin, last seen in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs," has a tendency to abruptly change emotional direction like a faucet that runs hot then cold.
"Washington Square's" determination to make its story as simple-minded as possible is its great drawback. Though the argument could be made that Catherine's fate is subtly handled, the film's eagerness to spell everything out in capital letters would probably make James cringe. What he would think about an ending that involves Manhattan's first day-care center and a Marilyn and Alan Bergman song about a piece of string is thankfully beyond imagining.
According to "A Talent for Trouble," Jan Herman's comprehensive Wyler biography, Tom Cruise and director Mike Nichols considered remaking "The Heiress" as recently as 1993. They finally decided against it, concluding "Wyler's version was perfect." More than anything else, "Washington Square" indicates they were right.
Washington Square, 1997. PG, for thematic elements, including some sensuality, a childbirth scene and brief mild language. A Roger Birnbaum production, in association with Caravan Pictures, released by Hollywood Pictures. Director Agnieszka Holland. Producers Roger Birnbaum, Julie Bergman Sender. Executive producer Randy Ostrow. Screenplay Carol Doyle, based on the novel by Henry James. Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski. Editor David Siegel. Costumes Anna Sheppard. Music Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Production design Allan Starski. Art director Alan E. Muraoka. Set decorator William A. Cimino. Running time: 1 hours, 55 minutes. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine Sloper. Albert Finney as Dr. Austin Sloper. Ben Chaplin as Morris Townsend. Maggie Smith as Aunt Livinia Penniman. Judith Ivey as Mrs. Elizabeth Almond.