Washington Square (1997)

reviewed by
Duncan Stevens

The Jane-Austen-goes-to-Hollywood craze has subsided, but Austen has a replacement, it seems, in Henry James; with last fall's "Portrait of a Lady, and this fall's "Wings of the Dove," "Washington Square" represents one of three James novels to hit the silver screen lately. But though the treatment of them by Hollywood may be superficially similar--sumptuous costumes, elaborate sets, a liberal dose of British acting--James and Austen could hardly be more different: whereas Austen's novels are largely comedies with some character development but little social critique (Austen's villains are products of the same milieu as her heroes, and their failings tend to be conventional human faults rather than anything emblematic of their societies), James generally has different priorities. Put another way, one can rely on the plot to keep the audience entertained in an adaptation of an Austen film, but taking James' stories as a basis for a film is less than a sure thing.

Director Agnieszka Holland accordingly takes some liberties with "Washington Square," though far fewer than Jane Campion's "Portrait"--and, as it happens, far more successfully. The story is fairly simple: Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh), plain and shy, falls for penniless socialite Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), but her father Austin (Albert Finney), suspecting that Morris is out for Catherine's considerable wealth, threatens to disinherit her should the two marry. This is the stuff of countless uninteresting films and novels, on the one hand, but James has more in mind than the average writer, and the plot reflects it; the focus is as much on the illusions associated with romantic love as on its virtues, and the father is as compelling--and, in a way, as sympathetic--as the suitor. And Holland, in her turn, puts her stamp on the story; what was a fairly pessimistic ending becomes more hopeful, with a distinctly feminist element. The initial scene, set up by a skillful and elaborate tracking shot, depicts Catherine's birth and her mother's resulting death, and Holland illustrates in it the relationship that is central to the film.

Leigh has, to say the least, played a motley crew of neurotics and damaged souls--but it is here, where her scars are displayed by facial tics and barely visible body language, that her acting genuinely shines. Whereas in films like "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle" and "Georgia" she was given room to express pain loudly and angrily, there are few such moments here--but those few moments (at the reading of her father's will, following Morris' carriage along a muddy street) are all the more effective. When she declines Morris' invitation to dance, her movements--looking down, twisting away--say as much as any lines could. Leigh's delivery has been described as "lockjaw"--a promising career in ventriloquism awaits her should she give up acting--but the murmuring serves to reinforce her character's shyness here. Her awkwardness is equally well realized; in dropping a pile of papers and clumsily scrambling around picking them up, she conveys the humiliation of the moment. Leigh's face is immensely expressive; watching her closely yields real insight into her character's conflicts. And she does manage to develop the character over the course of the film; her final confrontation with her father is both dramatic and thoroughly believable.

The other performances are, mostly, strong. Finney goes well beyond conventional father-villain in portraying Austin: though we see his limitations, we also see where they come from. His grief for his wife keeps him from relating to his daughter fully: the gulf between them is established in the first scene and reinforced in a variety of ways thereafter. But the audience never doubts the genuineness of his grief, nor that his distance from his daughter saddens him. This is a flawed character, not a monster, and there is much more to his resistance to Catherine's marriage than malice. Chaplin, for his part, does well with the ambiguities of his character--though the final revelation is not as believable as it might be, and the concluding scene between Morris and Catherine feels a bit incongruous, it is possible throughout to understand how Catherine can see him as a good-hearted boy while her father considers him a parasite. Maggie Smith is as effective as usual as Catherine's fluttery, sentimental Aunt Lavinia, though her character has little to do with the central plot and sometimes feels more like a device for comic relief.

The appeal of "Washington Square," particularly for those who want something more than authentic costumes and backdrops in a period piece, lies in the way it subverts expectations. Catherine begins the film as an awkward wallflower, but, for once, that is not a signal that she will soon become a society belle; though her confidence grows as the film progresses, she is recognizably the somewhat clumsy, homely girl. Points for realism, at any rate. Moreover, this is not a story of tragically denied lovers, though it may seem so at first; rather, it focuses firmly on Catherine and the various treacheries and cruelties that she deals with. The result, though slow in coming, is intriguing. Finney's character is central to many of the surprises; his real feelings regarding his daughter are not obvious until well along in the proceedings, but when they become apparent, the real focus of the story shifts somewhat. Holland's visuals are particularly effective; she uses stark, even brutal, images to reinforce her point, for instance when Austin discovers Catherine secretly modeling a wedding gown, or in the young Catherine's humiliation at a birthday recital. Though one is miscalculated--a showdown between Catherine and Austin atop a rocky peak in the Alps--most are effective, and the cinematography, mostly, fits the screenplay well.

It has been observed that, as is often the case with James, the conflict between love and money predominates--but it's not clear that that's the real point here. Certainly, that conflict is the source of much of the plot, but arguably it masks the real tension, between a daughter too old to be kept at home and a father whose opinion of her is so low that he refuses to believe that she can make a viable life for herself. As it stands, love and money are not genuinely in conflict--there is sufficient money for Catherine to leave and marry Morris, were that the entirety of the problem. Moreover, Morris does, eventually, land a job, satisfying Austin's request that he make something of himself. But the problem persists, and as we see no evidence that Austin is by nature a miser, it seems logical to look deeper, at what truly motivates him. As usual with James, there are hidden motivations at stake; the "money" angle is relevant, though not in entirely expected ways, but more vital is Austin's inability to see Catherine as anything other than an awkward, insecure girl.

Though the ending of "Washington Square" is satisfying, it also provides one of the film's major flaws, in that the script seems to rush to its conclusion. After a climactic scene between Catherine and Morris, there is little further resolution of either character--at least, not on screen--and we are forced to infer most of what happens after that. It could be argued that subsequent events are obvious, but it would have been nice to see them--if for no other reason than to see how Leigh handles them--and it's a bit jarring when a rather deliberately paced film suddenly speeds up.

On the whole, though, this is a strong adaptation that captures many of the most important elements of the novel but also gives the plot a contemporary twist. Memorable chiefly for Leigh's portrayal of Catherine, "Washington Square" deserves recognition for being something other than a conventional period piece, in style and in plot.

Duncan Stevens

The room is as you left it; your last touch-- A thoughtless pressure, knowing not itself As saintly--hallows now each simple thing, Hallows and glorifies, and glows between The dust's gray fingers, like a shielded light.

--from "Interim," by Edna St. Vincent Millay

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