Jane Austen move over. Henry James is now the author laureate of the movies.
With the premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival of Miramax's sterling adaptation of James' "The Wings of the Dove", Buena Vista has volleyed forth with yet another James adaptation, "Washington Square". A well-conceived production, capturing the cloistered tenor of the Gilded Age, the film stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as a lonely young heiress bereft of suitable male prospects. While Leigh's performance is splendidly modulated, her selection to play a dowdy, suitorless woman is, well, imaginative. No matter how frumped up, Leigh is not exactly a plain-Jane wallflower. Then again, Olivia de Havilland won an Oscar for her performance as the same character in the 1949 film "The Heiress".
In any event, this is not exactly a film for the menfolk, so such license might likely be tolerated. Prospects seem solid on the art house circuit.
In this meticulous evocation of both an age and a mind-set, director Agnieszka Holland has painstakingly crafted a visualization of James' central conflict: once again the clash of the old world vs. the new. In this fine outing, the old world is personified by a distinguished and tradition-minded physician, Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), whose personal rectitude is exceeded in stiffness only by his mule-headed ways. Arrogant and domineering, he wants what is best for his daughter -- in particular, the very best of suitors.
Unfortunately, the moneyed aristocrats of this New York enclave, Washington Square, are not exactly beating a path to his daughter's parlor; the only swain to appear is a penniless yet handsome wastrel named Morris (Ben Chaplin). He has the temerity to ask for Catherine's hand, which enrages the good doctor.
While Carol Doyle's adaptation of James' writing conveys a keen understanding of his themes, as well as wry humor, it is director Holland's visuals that capture the central conflicts here: old vs. new, intellect vs. heart.
Unfortunately, the narrative is corseted by the performances. As the ardent suitor, Chaplin is, alas, somewhat sallow and wan. Overall, one's passion for Catherine and Morris getting together is never fully aroused. Finney, though, is well-cast as the vainglorious doctor, oozing with pomposity and stern callousness. And Maggie Smith as Catherine's venturesome aunt adds sparks.
Hollywood Pictures presents
in association with Caravan Pictures
A Roger Birnbaum production
in association with Ann Dubinet
An Agnieszka Holland film
Producers Roger Birnbaum,
Julie Bergman Sender
Director Agnieszka Holland
Screenwriter Carol Doyle
Based on the novel by Henry James
Executive producer Randy Ostrow
Director of photography Jerzy Zielinski
Production designer Allan Starski
Costume designer Anna Sheppard
Editor David Siegel
Music Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
Casting Debra Zane
Catherine Sloper Jennifer Jason Leigh
Dr. Austin Sloper Albert Finney
Aunt Lavinia Penniman Maggie Smith
Morris Townsend Ben Chaplin
Mrs. Elizabeth Almond Judith Ivey
Mr. Almond Arthur Laupus
Marian Almond Jennifer Garner
Running time -- 115 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
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