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It is unfair to compare the 1997 film "Washington Square" to the 1949 film
"The Heiress." "Washington Square" is a faithful adaptation of Henry
eponymous classic novel; "The Heiress" is based on the stage adaptation of
the James novel by Augustus and Ruth Goetz.
Hence, the two most dramatic scenes in "The Heiress" do not appear in "Washington Square" -- Morris Townsend's cruel jilting of Catherine right before their planned elopement, and Catherine's revenge in the final scene, where Morris is left pounding on the bolted door.
There were many fine performances in "Washington Square," most notably Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her many expressions of hurt, pain, and anguish are heart-breaking to watch. Ben Chaplin's outstanding portrayal of "the fortune hunter" is surprisingly sympathetic. Maggie Smith's Aunt Lavinia is seen as meddling and trouble-making. The soundtrack is beautiful, and the set designs and costumes provide an accurate portrayal of 19th century New York.
This is a masterpiece of film-making, both because of the talented Polish director Agnieszka Holland, and the performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh. This is the best performance by Leigh which I have seen, and I always think she is inspired, but here she truly transcends herself. It is simply one of the greatest cinematic performances of the 1990s. Rarely has an actress so intimately portrayed the most subtle nuances of mood so well. Such an intimate film could only have been directed by a woman, and I don't believe Leigh could have done this for a male director, not even her chum, the late Robert Altman. The performance by Leigh is really as delicate as gossamer, and she spins a transparent silky web of tormented love with such intensity she outdoes even Olivia de Havilland, who played the role before her in 'The Heiress' long ago, and to do that is a miracle! The only way to describe Leigh's performance is to say that she has a 'naked face'. She seems determined to hide nothing. Pathological shyness has rarely been shown so clearly. Throughout the film, Leigh does a progressive striptease of the soul, and she ends up with nothing on but her hard-earned sense of self worth, which cloaks her admirably. Ben Chaplin is a perfect choice for the young suitor, and he mixes goodness and elegance with the desperate grasping nature of the character in an ideal cocktail that is deadly while it is sweet. And Albert Finney surpasses himself as the father so eaten up with bitterness at his wife's death in childbirth that he can never forgive his pathetic daughter for 'killing her', and actively hates and persecutes her for her entire lifetime. Henry James wrote the novel, and he knew a thing or two about people. I once knew someone who had actually met Henry James, namely Dorothy Pound, and I asked her what he was like. (Well you would, wouldn't you?) She said she never had any real conversation with him because he spent all his time talking to Ezra, and they would meet from time to time strolling in Hyde Park, when James always had an attractive young woman on his arm, he would say something pleasant to the Pounds, and then he would be off. I said but what was he LIKE? She said: 'He wore a beautiful red waistcoat.' So there you go. And so does Albert Finney, as a crusty old port drinker with an American accent in this harrowing and tragic tale of intensity in the Square. By the way, the film was shot in Baltimore, and achieves a high degree of authenticity with well-preserved old houses, both inside and out. As time passes in the story, the style of 19th century costumes changes appropriately. Everything is done with finesse. The film commences with the most stunning continuous moving shot, starting in the square, then going up to the front door of the house, 21 Washington Square, then entering the house, moving through it, going up the stairs, and entering the bedroom while a newborn baby cries O.S. and the mother lies dead on her bed with her eyes open wide. Finney lies down beside her and says: 'Now you will be together in heaven with our son.' What a way to open a film! And the final scene of the film, which I must not describe, is equally impressive in a completely different way, with the last shot featuring an incredible lighting effect. Technically, the film is perfect. Holland did not have Wajda as her mentor for nothing, and she is a true artist. I believe this is the finest of all the many excellent films based on Henry James stories, and most of them are so good, that is high praise indeed.
It takes a lot of nerve to take on a De Havilland's part ,and Jennifer
Jason Leigh has succeeded though:she has never taken the easy road ,as
"last exit to Brooklyn"(1989)testifies.She is one of these rare
contemporary actors (like Sean Penn,Daniel Day-Lewis,Emma Thompson)who
shuns narcissistic parts,who does not think twice about making herself
look ugly(like De Havilland).Her portrayal of a gauche,clumsy but
endearing heiress(!)despised by her father is brilliant.
Matching her every step of the way are Finney's and Smith's sensational renderings of the rich fat bourgeois and the ambiguous spinster. Albert Finney plays a selfish cruel man ,whose wife died when his daughter was born,and he never forgave the girl this death.So he 's always putting her down,humiliating her fiercely.Maggie Smith -who has already played old maid parts:see "the prime of miss Jean Brodie"(1969),"the honey pot" (1967)"A room with a view"(1986)-is equally successful as the heroine's aunt:we never know whether she helps or thwarts her niece's plans.She probably tries to recreate what she misses during her whole life,but isn't she trying to make her niece what she is as well?Whatever you think of remakes,when you deal with such a efficient threesome,you forget all your bias.
Henry James talks about woman's condition during the last century.Money is the center of the heroine's drama;she will never be sure to be loved for herself,that's why her love is doomed from the very beginning.At the time,marriage was the woman's only future,ugly women became either spinsters or nuns.Catherine's dilemma is that,unlike the other socialites for whom marriage is the way to become part of the posh elite,love is second to none for her.Ben Chaplin is rather acceptable,but his character remains one-dimensional.It was probably hard to equal Montgomery Clift.
In a nutshell,a movie who shuns fad;hence a very commendable work.Agnieska Holland -who had already directed a remarkable "Europa Europa"- is a director who promises great things.
"Washington Square" is a flat, shabby adaptation of the short novel by Henry
James. Indeed, the novel is very good, but far from the level of James'
masterpieces. Moreover its simple, eventless story seems unsuited to make it
into a film (although William Wyler, with his "The Heiress", gave in 1949 a
beautiful version of the novel).
Anyway, the movie completely betrays the spirit of this work of the great American writer. In the novel, the heroine Catherine is shy, not very attractive and somewhat clumsy, but nonetheless she is a sound, intelligent young woman, and she's not as naive as it may seem. Her attachment for her father is dignified and respectful, with no morbid sides in it. Along three quarters of the movie, Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) just seems to be mentally retarded, poor thing. In the last quarter, she suddenly (and incredibly) becomes intelligent, aware of her dignity as a woman, and all that.
The director Agnieszka Holland has added two vulgar scenes to the story. The first, when the nervous child Catherine has, well, troubles with her vesica. The second scene, when we see on the background a sort of open-air brothel, with prostitutes taking their customers behind tents, and so on. Nothing could be more contrary to the spirit and artistic ideals of Henry James. It is notorious that the writer was extremely decent and demure even for the standards of the Victorian age. I defy anyone to find any coarseness anywhere in the thousands of pages of James' huge literary production. I really was particularly annoyed by these two scenes.
Yes, I know that a director needs reasonable freedom in the screen adaptation of a novel. But if a director utterly ignores or misunderstands the art of an author (here Henry James), I don't see the point of using his work to make a bad movie.
The acting is adequate to the movie: poor and flat, in spite of the talent of Albert Finney and Maggie Smith. "Washington Square" is definitely a non-recommendable film.
If you liked this movie, then you should try William Wyler's "The Heiress" (1949) featuring GWTW's Melanie, Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift. Both of these movies contain moving performances from all of the lead actors. Catherine Sloper is skillfully portrayed as an unworldly, naive, young woman who falls for financially-unmatched, well-cultured, dashing Morris Townsend. The overprotective yet unloving Dr. Austin Sloper, Catherine's father, will make your blood boil! Both movies have the making for some intense soap opera-like drama - suspenseful in every regard, keeps you reaching for that bowl of popcorn or that box of Kleenex. To truly understand the plight of the young lovers and especially to get a sense of the tension behind the relationship between daughter and father, one must view "The Heiress" and "Washington Square" for the two films are lovely by themselves, but they certainly complement each other. You'll see what I mean after watching both ;) Enjoy!
The film version of Henry James' novel twists the story James tried to convey. The director of the film took too many liberties with the film by adding scenes and distorting scenes as to make the drama point almost all fingers at the poor Doctor. I believe that the director did not make as much of an emphasis on the money as James originally did, and I believe that the director did not convey the faults within the love affair in order to make the drama more romantic. I think that a more strict adherence to James would have made the film just as romantic, but would have left the audience with the message that the lovers had just as many faults as the good Doctor.
I first saw "The Heiress" when it first came out. I was about 12, but
old enough to be fascinated by the characters and the basic conflict.
Wow! I read the James' book "Washington Square" about 30 years later. I
was disappointed. It was a rambling story told by a busybody with none
of the dramatic high points of The Heiress; it is Henry James" first
novel and has none of the intriguing nuances of his later novels.
This film stays closer to the novel than "The Heiress". Thus, it is much less of a drama. The attempt to do the book is commendable, but it is not necessarily the route to an entertaining film. Here, the characterizations are obscurely unmotivated (Finney), over-the-top (Smith), uneven and sometimes weird (Leigh), and charmless and off-putting (Chapin). The musical score is intrusive. All of this contrasts badly with "The Heiress", in which the characters had far more depth, authenticity, and appeal(certainly Morris and even the minor characters).
This longer version attempts a better exposition of the characters' psychology. Good ambition but it fails. Take Dr. Sloper. A hard working, self-made man who despises Morris Townsend mainly because he is a self-centered loafer. It is not snobbery which motivates him, Morris is a gentleman, but his belief in merit and good works. He does love his daughter but she disappoints him with her shyness and inability to master much of life. He pushes her to manage better, but he is constantly frustrated. For her to marry Morris would be to shatter all he believes about how people should live. A bad guy? A good guy? All of this comes out in Ralph Richardson"s performance in "The Heiress.' Finney just seems like an nasty oaf in comparison.
I rented WS in order to compare Jennifer Jason Leigh's performance in this with her performance in Kansas City. Both are period pieces, and in both i sensed her willingness to submerge a modern self into the demands of the historic period. This is frightening to behold--Albert Finney is rock-hard, with glimpses of natural paternal sentiment that only make his determined hardness the more monstrous. So, his daughter is his victim--a victim of culture, a victim of circumstance--a victim of miscommunications, a victim of her lover, of her aunt? It's all a little hard to bear, except that, as the motif of endurance emerges, the formation of a protective shell over the passions of the young is, finally, a relief. I don't know if there is enough popcorn and chocolate/caramel/you-name-it to make sitting through this story actually enjoyable. Beautifully dressed and accompanied by exquisite score, it's a tragedy with a conclusion of unillumined defeat. Although Katherine, Leigh's role, keeps for herself, privately, the apparent pleasure of the memory of passion. Is this James's modern leaning? Anyway, I rated it high, because as a window into history it's at least fascinating.
Usually I adore movies with no glitches - easy romance that merely comes to fruition. However, this film caught my eye in the video store and I impulsively rented it - I will forever be grateful to my instinct. For this film was amazing - a young woman who is unattractive physically, but beautiful inside. She yearns for the true, unconditional love that her father has never provided it to her. This story documents with grace and intense emotion her journey of discovery - for who really loves her and who she really is. The music is achingly poignant and supports a story that evokes such incredible feelings in its viewers. Washington Square isn't a film that makes you cry, it's one that makes you weep.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I love Henry James books and Washington Square was no exception. I was
very excited to see a new movie coming out, based on the book of that
title. Jennifer Jason Lee is an exceptional actress and Ben Chaplin
good enough to play the lead roles. Albert Finney is miscast and
doesn't carry the role well. I wanted to shoot Maggie Smith....or
rather her silly, insipid role. The real problem and what's lacking in
this latest version is a good script, music, and direction.
I fell asleep in the theater watching this long, drawn out and exceptionally boring movie. There are more pauses in the dialog than a Pinter Play. In the book I felt a deep caring for Catherine Sloper and her life. The movie had just the opposite effect. I also disliked the twist where her aunt has a sexual attraction to Morris. Eeeeeeeek. YUK.
Watch it if you can't sleep, it's a definite snoozer. Don't watch it if you're depressed. You'll need Zoloft after this.
Sure, "The Heiress" was exceptional with Olivia Haviland and Montgomery Clift in the title roles. The actor who played her father was on the mark as the uncaring, cold father....still grieving for his dead wife and hating Catherine for it. The movie was not faithful to the book but neither is this one.
This movie was a box office flop. I have no doubts as to why.
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