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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

Reviewer Roundup
1.  Harvey Karten review follows ---
2.  Steve Rhodes read the review movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"How obscene that your mother should give her life so that you could have her space on earth." Imagine the hurt a young woman must feel to hear words like that from the father she once adored. As though this utterance were not enough of a cross to bear, this vulnerable individual hears an outburst from the lover for whom she waited one year, who proclaims that since he has all the charm and she nothing but money, he should be entitled to a share of her wealth after marriage. What gives "Washington Square" its particularly inviting quality is that throughout the film the audience does not truly know whether the young, handsome and captivating suitor of a shy, innocent person is after her for her money or whether he truly loves her. What's more, Henry James, who wrote his novel about a family high in New York social circles, wants us to have mixed feelings about the cynical and verbally abusive father. Does he want to protect his only daughter from the pitches of fortune hunters, or is just plain ornery about a girl whose delivery resulted in the childbirth death of his wife? It's no wonder that this readable classic was the subject of a major film forty-eight years ago, entitled "The Heiress" and starring Ralph Richardson, Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland; and of a recent stage version at New York's Roundabout Theater with Philip Bosco and Cherry Jones in the leading roles.

Given a moderately feminist twist by Agnieszka Holland in a beautifully photographed new movie, "Washington Square" features Jennifer Jason Leigh in the role of Catherine Sloper, an awkward girl who becomes her own woman and gains a comeuppance against the two men whose mixed feelings toward her caused so much distress. Adapted from the Henry James novel by screenwriter Carol Doyle and photographed in Baltimore by Jerzy Zielinski, this "Washington Square" may disappoint those who prefer the theatrical revenge conclusion of the Roundabout Theater's production but will please those who like their movies to remain close to the literary designs of the novelists. "Washington Square" shows its wares realistically with only a brief outpouring of histrionics, and conveys a tidy look at a portion of New York society a century and a half ago.

In dealing with the life of Ms. Sloper before she meets her eager suitor, director Holland selects a few seminal episodes in her early life to impart the young girl's awkwardness. Particularly moving, almost painful to watch, is a song recital she is about to give to an audience of father, aunts, uncles and cousins, only to freeze with stagefright and urinate copiously on the living room floor. Despite the embarrassment and shame she seems to cause the father she tries heartbreakingly to please, her dad, Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), makes clear that she has no social graces, limited looks, and an inability to capture the attentions of an eligible bachelor. Encouraged by a slightly dotty and loving Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith) who lives with the family, Catherine accepts the attentions of a handsome, magnetic suitor, Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), a penniless member of society who at first appears to have ardent feelings for her. When Dr. Sloper--who calls Morris an idler who is out for money--threatens to disinherit Catherine unless she breaks off the relationship, even taking her on a one-year trip to Europe to allow Catherine's feelings to cool, the lines are effectively drawn.

While Ms. Holland does furnish the flavor of New York society by giving us glimpses into the parties, by carefully showing us the far-reaching and lavishly furnished home at 21 Washington Square, by offering a look at the many servants, she avoids the lush and stilted theatricality of Merchant-Ivory productions while displaying a movie far more toned down than her own "Total Eclipse" (about the relationship between Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud). Her calm approach provides a note of authenticity and realism to the goings-on while retaining dramatic punch through a single, showdown scene between Catherine and her suitor, Morris Townsend.

While Cherry Jones, who shone in the cast of the Roundabout Theater production some years back, might have offered a more genuine reading of Catherine's character, Jennifer Jason Leigh does fine, broadening her range after appearing previously in terminally cynical roles such as that of Dorothy Parker. Albert Finney is more in tune with the doctor's persona than the blustery and less witty Philip Bosco, who re-created the role alongside Cherry Jones, and Ben Chaplin plays the part subtly enough that we are kept speculating about his motives.

"Washington Square," then, is a down-to-earth piece of moviemaking filled with solid performances and a mildly feminist resolution which should please many without offending audience members of a conservative bent.

Copyright 1997 Harvey Karten

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