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An Heiress Comes Into Her Own

WASHINGTON SQUARE directed by Agnieszka Holland starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Chaplin, Albert Finney, Maggies Smith at the Kendall Square Cinema


The central figure of Washington Square is Catherine Sloper, a plain but earnest young heiress whose need for love is trampled by her family's cruel neglect and her fiance's own weak will.

Ironically, Henry James' story about a woman with no advocates has been one of his most enduringly popular works. Even more perversely, the role of humble Catherine has been an award magnet for glamorous actresses, most famously in the case of Olivia de Havilland's Oscar winning work in the 1949 film adaptation The Heiress.

William Wyler, the auteur behind The Heiress, was one of Hollywood's most notoriously tyrannical directors, and the revenge drama he cooked out of James' original recipe essentially reflected his own fascination with power and retribution. What immediately distinguishes Agnieszka Holland's new version of Washington Square, then, is its remarkable synergy of subject and storytellers.

For the first time, Catherine's story is told by a director and an actress with whom she bears much in common. Both Holland and star Jennifer Jason Leigh have contributed years of solid, sometimes spectacular work to the male-dominated film industry, but neither has received the critical or popular recognition they deserve. In their sensitive hands, Washington Square-as-film comes closer to what James originally wrote: an elegy to a woman whom few people notice and no one loves.

The film opens with a long, continuous shot that begins off the coast of mid-19th-century New York, swoops through parks and over avenues, and sneaks into an old brownstone where, in an upstairs bedroom, a woman dies while giving birth. Sustained opening shots can be empty gimmicks (anyone see The Bird-cage?), but Jerzy Zielinski's vivid camera-work shifts moods so subtly in each new context that, within minutes, the various textures of Old New York--from public pageantry to private grief--are established.

Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), the man whose residence we have entered, is more derailed by his wife's death than delighted by his daughter's birth. Named for her mother, and thus a constant reminder of Dr. Sloper's loss, Catherine (Leigh) grows up with little hope of connecting with her distant, resentful father. Worse, Austin's sister Lavinia (Maggie Smith) fancies herself a surrogate mother but is too uncouth and undisciplined to make of Catherine a sophisticated lady.

"So this magnificent creature is my child," laments Dr. Sloper, beholding Catherine in a gaudy, ill-fitting gown before they and Lavinia leave for the requisite period-film Society Ball. Catherine may not be the sharpest needle on the tree, but she can (and does) feel the sad, punishing irony in her father's pronouncements.

She is, in fact, so conscious of her lack of "magnificence" that she is instantly suspicious of the attentions of Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin). Morris has no money and a shady past, but all of New York acknowledges his rare good looks and, even rarer, his lively charm and sense of adventure. Dr. Sloper is so impressed (or is it threatened?) by Morris that he can only explain the young suitor's attentions to Catherine as financial savvy. "He must think she has 80,000 a year," the Doctor says.

Which, of course, she does, but Catherine doesn't question his motives. She wagers all she has on the purity of Morris's love, while Morris himself begins a protracted, ugly rivalry with the skeptical Dr. Sloper. As Morris tells Catherine, "I stake my pride on proving to your father that he is wrong," failing to realize that his intended declaration of love has become a declaration of war.

For his part, Dr. Sloper whisks Catherine off to Europe, primarily to distance Catherine from Morris, but also in pathetic pursuit of Morris's globe-trotting, foreign-bred charm. The tragedy of Washington Square is that, by the end of the film, the only shadow of love that survives is the jealous, passionate admiration that exists between Morris and the doctor. Catherine has been erased from her own romance.

The decision to cast Leigh is a big risk with big payoffs. Most famous for playing hookers and addicts in films like Last Exit to Brooklyn and Georgia, Leigh's participation in a costume drama is an almost absurd proposition.

The incongruities between her persona and the period, however, serve to reinforce the essential awkwardness Catherine Sloper feels in her own environment. The skittish, chameleon-like quality that has kept Leigh from being a star is perfectly suited to Catherine. She almost disappears inside her own scenes until her misery and confusion are quietly compelling and almost uncomfortable to behold.

Chaplin, the Hugh Grant-ish twinkie from The Truth About Cats & Dogs, makes an admirable about-face to become this brooding, swanky manipulator. As in his previous film, however, he projects a wheezy lack of mystery: a bad move in a role once played by Montgomery Clift. Finney and Smith are, as always, convincing, but they show no new sides of their prodigious talents. Smith's Lavinia, in particular, is a near-transplant of her kooky chaperone from A Room With a View.

Holland, whose previous credits include the German drama Europa, Europa and the kiddie-pleaser The Secret Garden, was smart to choose a tight, simple story that allows for a few idiosyncratic touches but matches more closely with her essential narrative conservatism. Recently guilty of filling her films with too many climaxes, the director shows considerable discipline in building the tension between her characters until the drama reaches a critical mass.

Holland has none of the natural genius of a filmmaker like Jane Campion, and Washington Square has little of the daring or visual audacity of Campion's own James adaptation, last year's grievously ignored Portrait of a Lady. At the same time, Holland's straightforward storytelling may give audiences more access into James than Campion's almost frightening originality.

Still, if Washington Square is not necessarily ground-breaking, it does bear the marks of diligent artists lending their talents to strong material. Neither Holland nor Leigh will soon be found guilty of the "Lost World" Syndrome: namely, making the same movie over and over simply because they can. Neither woman's work is ever uninteresting, and when all their cylinders are running, as they are here, attention deserves to be paid.

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