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The Boston Phoenix Heiress apparent

Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square is a pedestrian maul

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  WASHINGTON SQUARE, Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Written by Carol Doyle based on the novel by Henry James. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin, and Maggie Smith. A Hollywood Pictures release. At the Kendall Square.

There's something about Henry James that defies the screen the way a similar novelist of manners like Jane Austen does not. Perhaps it's the rarefied prose, the page-long sentences, the minutely nuanced psychological qualifications, or the torturously calculated point of view. There's something elusive, and it drives filmmakers to such folly as Merchant and Ivory's gaudy kitsch in The Bostonians or Jane Campion's mannered nonsense in The Portrait of a Lady.

To find a decent adaptation of a James novel you'd have to go back to William Wyler's The Heiress (1949), an adaptation of Washington Square via Ruth and Augustus Goetz's stage production, which wisely eschews the verbal heavy lifting for the book's soapy essence. Apparently Agnieszka Holland didn't learn much from Wyler's effort -- least of all not to try to repeat it. Her Washington Square retains the original title but little of James's inspiration and less of Wyler's graceful license. It can't be faulted for its lushly brocaded set designs, costumes, and cinematography, though. Or for the energetic performances that elevate it above mere stolidity.

But at times those performances push it over the edge to farce. For example, where in James's writings does a major character wet her pants? Such is the messy fate of tubby 11-year-old Catherine Sloper (Sara Ruzicka) as she loses it in front of her sternly disapproving father, Austin (Albert Finney, enjoying every plummy, broadened syllable of his upper-crust New York accent), and the well-starched guests gathered for his birthday. Theirs is a decidedly one-sided relationship: she's the shamelessy obeisant chocolate Lab, he's the discomforted master wielding the rolled-up newspaper. Catherine's characteristic pose finds her seated in a window, pining after her father's retreating figure, seeking consolation from a caged songbird.

That's the image that Holland chooses for her, at any rate, and eventually a match cut is made from the sorry young Catherine framed in the window to the adult Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh, doing her best to look dumpy and pathetic) frozen in the same position. She was born at the expense of her mother's life (this, the film's most powerful scene, shows Holland at her visceral, elliptical best). That's her misfortune -- that and being unable to meet the standards of her grieving, wealthy physician father. She is the apple of her aunt's eye, however: Lavinia (Maggie Smith in a subtly perverse performance) sees in her a tabula rasa to be formed into her own fantasy of romance and adventure. So when handsome, idle, penniless young Morris Townsend (a grim Ben Chaplin) hits on Catherine at a family fête, Aunt Lavinia is swift to swoop in and arrange matters with the pulpy aplomb of a cheap novelist.

Much of the beauty and pain -- not to mention frustration -- in James, is, of course, the ambiguity. In the novel, we never learn what Morris's true feelings about Catherine are (is he just a slick fortune hunter? does he really love her, maybe a little bit?). What's more, we're told that such things can never be known for certain. In Holland's adaptation, however, ambiguity is confused with opacity. Chaplin's Morris maintains his mystery by underplaying his character into a frayed, gray automaton. We know he's just in it for the money, and his lazy prevarications are only annoying.

Leigh's Catherine is all unabashed need; she turns her slavish infatuation with her undeserving father into a similar subordination to the worthless Morris, but neither passion seems earned or felt. She's merely a deluded dupe for both, and when the resulting conflict unconvincingly brings her to a recognition of her own value, the transformation comes off as forced and anachronistically proto-feminist. Leigh conveys with sometimes heartbreaking conviction the anguish and ecstasy of hopeless, deluded desire, but hers is a one-trick pony whose redemption seems borrowed from another movie.

In the characters of Dr. Sloper and Aunt Lavinia, however, Holland draws on her insights into the sadistic and masochistic underpinnings of intimate relations that characterize her Olivier Olivier and The Secret Garden. Finney's Austin may be disdainful of his daughter's fawning attentions, but he also takes a deep pleasure in them, both as a consolation for his loneliness and as an opportunity to inflict cruelty and wield power. He relishes the opportunity to thwart her attempt at independence by forbidding her liaison with Morris, though his insistence on the suitor's ulterior motives -- who would want to marry someone as drab and witless as her except for the money? -- is clearly less important than his sadistic sexual jealousy. In a wonderful moment of macabre inspiration, Holland sets the confrontation between Morris and Dr. Sloper in the latter's obstetrician office, where they're surrounded by ghoulish charts of the female anatomy and the tools of a trade that was ineffective in saving the practitioner's own wife.

Mostly, though, it's Maggie Smith's Lavinia that rings truest to Holland's spirit, and James's. Hovering in the background like an omniscient narrator, creating characters and love affairs and, perhaps, falling in love with them herself, she's a beplumed, mediocre embodiment of the chill genius behind the images and words -- all-knowing, manipulative, resigned to solitude and fate.

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