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
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
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
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