Washington Square (1997)

reviewed by
James Sanford

Although the movie ``Washington Square'' bears the same title as Henry James' novel, it takes considerable liberties with the source material, much in the same way the recent ``Wings of the Dove'' did with another James novel.

Carol Doyle's screenplay remodels the character of Catherine Sloper into something of a fledgling feminist, rather than the meek and pathetic victim she was in ``The Heiress,'' the popular stage adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz.

The transformation works, thanks to a typically edgy performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh and unfussy direction by Agnieszka Holland. Despite its turn-of-the-century setting, this retelling of the story rings with contemporary resonance, and although Doyle has tweaked the original, particularly with regard to the ending, she has retained the gist of ``Washington Square.''

It's still the bittersweet tale of well-to-do, woebegone Catherine's flirtation with the penniless Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin) and her domineering father's (Albert Finney) stringent objection to it.

Holland and her production team have created an excellent example of how to open up a play and make it cinematic by taking the action out of the Sloper family's parlor and moving it into the streets of New York, the gardens of high society, the mountains of Europe and a variety of beautifully evoked locations.

With her usual abandon, Leigh at first loses herself in Catherine's gaudy dresses and nervous tics. As the story progresses, however, the actress lets us see there is considerably more going on with this girl than first meets the eye.

Beneath her awkwardness is a hint of a sharp, sly mind at work, and Doyle allows us to wonder whether Catherine is being used by Morris or if she is in fact using him to make one final stand against her father.

Finney's vivid portrait of Dr. Sloper is one of the actor's strongest performances since ``Under The Volcano'' 15 years ago. Throughout the story, Sloper drops potent little bombs on his graceless daughter's dreams, building up to the devestating moment when he laments, ``How obscene that your mother should give her life so that you can inhabit space on this earth.''

Yet Finney doesn't allow him to sink into either conventional villainy or melodramatic excess.

Sloper remains imposing and, even though he's a terrible father, he isn't entirely heartless. Though he may well be more concerned with his daughter embarrassing him than shaming herself, Sloper at least wants to spare her any undue humiliation.

Chaplin - best known as the love interest in ``The Truth About Cats and Dogs'' - lends surprising richness and depth to Morris. Like Leigh, Chaplin is purposefully oblique about Morris' motives, thus enhancing the drama.

As played by Maggie Smith, the spinster aunt Lavinia comes off as being slightly smarter and a trifle more infatuated with Morris than she was in ``The Heiress.''

Even so, ``Washington Square'' is ultimately Leigh's show, and she effortlessly carries the picture. Few other young actresses have Leigh's knack for quietly exposing tormented souls.

Her consistently intriguing performance here should sway those who still have reservations about her, while giving her cult of admirers one more reason to celebrate her gift.

James Sanford

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