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Washington Square

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Washington Square

Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Chaplin
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Rated: PG
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: October 1997
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Judith Ivey, Betsy Brantley, Jennifer Garner, Peter Maloney, Robert Stanton

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

Just as it is most assuredly determined from birth whether one will like liver or not, so it is with actors and costume dramas. Helena Bonham Carter, for example, was undoubtedly born in long dress with full period regalia. As seen most recently in the film version of the Henry James novel, THE WINGS OF THE DOVE, she is in her element when dressed from head to toe in full period attire.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, on the other hand, is not genetically predisposed toward petticoat pictures. Casting her as the female lead in a film version of another Henry James novel, "Washington Square," a role that won an Oscar for Olivia De Havilland in 1949, represents significant risk for WASHINGTON SQUARE's director Agnieszka Holland. (The 1949 version was called THE HEIRESS, but the new movie is titled WASHINGTON SQUARE since, according to the press notes, it attempts to recreate the novel much more faithfully.)

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a brilliant actress who specializes in hard-hitting contemporary roles, such as the devastating LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, and the film that should have gotten her an Academy Award nomination, GEORGIA. As in her most recent performance in A THOUSAND ACRES, she makes a strategic error in WASHINGTON SQUARE and underplays her part. All of the above notwithstanding, her performance, which remains central to the enjoyment of the film, is delightful even if sometimes strained.

Czech director Holland approaches each film with a passion for detail. Known abroad for EUROPA, EUROPA, her best English language film was the lovely and magical film, THE SECRET GARDEN. Her meticulousness shows in WASHINGTON SQUARE in many small ways. The story starts with the birth of Catherine Sloper, played as a young adult by Leigh. After Catherine's mother has died in childbirth, the director manages to wait until the baby playing Catherine has such a remarkably wise and soulful look that one feels the baby understands the tragedy.

Catherine's father, Dr. Austin Sloper, is played by that master of all periods, Albert Finney. He believes his daughter to be without accomplishment or beauty. Although basically true, his protection of her has cruel consequences. Most of the show, except for an incongruous scene of a fat preteen Catherine, takes place when Catherine is a young woman of marriageable age. (For the record, fat people can become and stay thin ones -- I, for one, did -- but it is not likely, and the story creates a visual discord by not explaining the transformation.)

Catherine's costumes by Anna Sheppard, Academy Award nominee for SCHINDLER'S LIST, make Catherine look exceedingly plain and gawky. When she comes to show off her first ball gown, her father is told he must wait. "If a prelude is necessary," he says sternly. "The news must be bad." It is. Draped in what appears to be a old curtain of gold tassels on a badly contrasting royal blue base, Catherine grimaces and looks terrible. With her make-up and her downcast mouth, Leigh turns herself from naturally cute into an extremely homely young woman.

When Catherine goes to the ball, a dashing but penniless young man named Morris Townsend appears instantly smitten with her. Morris, played with charm and panache by Ben Chaplin from THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS & DOGS, becomes the story's enigma. Are his intentions honorable as he says, or is he, as her father believes, just a rogue whose only interest is Catherine's considerable fortune?

In James's poetic language, they banter sweet nothings at each other when they first meet. "A woman of such uncommon grace has no need of guile," he assures her at one point.

Maggie Smith plays Catherine's Aunt Lavinia Penniman. She is a ninny whose putative position is to chaperone Catherine. Smith's delicate performance engenders a wave of giggles in the audience whenever she opens her mouth. During one tiresome session of watching over the young lovers, she makes an awkward exit. "You'll have to excuse me, Mr. Townsend," she explains. "I have a fortuitous headache."

Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's heavy violin music is as rich as the paneled rooms in which much of the action takes place. To recreate the Washington Square of 1840s New York City, production designer Allan Starski chose a Baltimore setting. The lovely Federalist houses there dot a richly textured urban landscape.

When Catherine's knees buckle from her first kiss by Morris, her first beau, Leigh manages to make it believable. Slumped almost on the floor, her face is flushed and her blood rushes. Never had the ungainly Catherine expected such rapture. In a time of R-rated show-'em-everything sexuality, it is refreshing to visit a time when more was not necessarily better, and when a kiss was, well, a kiss.

Chapin's performance is as dead-on as Finney's. When Morris explains, "My vanity requires an audience," we come to understand one of the reasons he likes Catherine, who dotes on his every word.

"It is a perfectly fitting conclusion," says Catherine as the story begins to wrap up. "I like it very much." I couldn't have said it better myself, and not being Henry James, I'm not expected to.

WASHINGTON SQUARE runs 1:55. It is rated PG for adult themes. The film would be fine for any age, but those below ten would probably not be interested. I recommend the film to you and give it ***.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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