Figuring out what kind of movie Polish-born filmmaker Agnieszka Holland is going to make next is a challenge. While shes best known for her 1993 version of The Secret Garden, she also wrote and directed the controversial Holocaust drama Europa Europa and even made an episode of the Showtime gumshoe series Fallen Angels.
When asked to comment (in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles) on her diverse filmography, Holland laughs and says, "Im not the American director who is doing five Batmans and seven Star Wars."
Her latest project is an adaptation of Henry James' 1881 novella Washington Square. The book deals with Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a young heiress who falls in love with a penniless charmer (Ben Chaplin) despite the staunch objections of her father (Albert Finney). The rigid Victorian American setting seems incompatible with Hollands previous films or even her own independent sensibilities. Nonetheless, Holland embraces the material because, "Most of my movies are about people who learn to know who they are, like the boy in Europa Europa or the little girl in The Secret Garden. In some ways Washington Square is the grown-up version of The Secret Garden. It means someone who finds the inner truth about himself and accepts it."
Other contemporary filmmakers have a similar fascination with Henry James. While the author died in 1916, his books have recently been adapted almost as regularly as those by John Grisham. In addition to Washington Square, The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove have also been recently filmed. Holland finds some of the recent interest in James surprising. She explains, "My reason (for making the movie) was because I liked the story. I think people are putting the money into these kinds of movies because some period movies based on classical literature were successful monetarily. Mostly it was Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility and Emma) which is really different from Henry James. Its like the difference between Midnight Cowboy and Sleepless in Seattle. Its the difference between very dark nonconformist research for human weakness and psychology and romantic comedy with playful characters. It doesnt mean that (Austen) isnt a wonderful writer. Its just on a different scale."
Holland is quick to add that James work is far from antiquated. "Actually I found him more interesting when I read (Washington Square) a couple of years ago than when I read it in my youth. When I was between 15 and 25, I found it a bit dated, this old story about marriages, (romantic) mismatches and money. Today, I think it reflects a lot of the truth about modern society, this terrible fear of being different and unaccepted by society and this obsession about money."
Holland says that bringing the book to the screen requires a delicate balance. She says, "I try to connect the story in the most personal way, at the same time being faithful to the period and the writer and the spirit of the writer. I think that it is important that if you are shooting classical literature that you dont betray the spirit of the piece. You can change a bit of the structure, but you have to be faithful to what the story is about. You cannot play the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven and change the final notes because some studio executive says there are too many notes."
Holland isnt the first director to tackle Washington Square. In 1949, William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives) filmed Ruth and Augustus Goetz's stage adaptation, titled The Heiress. Holland takes issue with its attitude. She states, "(The Heiress) was more of a revenge story. She becomes an angry, willful, bitchy person, and she pays back what she received from (her transgressors). I don't like it. It's not faithful to the character. (Catherine's) goal isn't vengeance. It's more like integrity. It's more subtle, but much more beautiful."
While Hollands more discriminating approach makes Washington Square sound like a small art-house movie, it is actually distributed by Disneys Hollywood Pictures division. For the most part, shes found making the film to be a pleasant surprise. She chuckles as she says, "I'm very happy. I don't know why they let me do it. So far they let me be. I was pretty lucky. They proposed it to me. I loved the book, the adaptation (by Carol Doyle) was pretty smart, and I found it was a good opportunity to work with some great actors."
Part of the reason Holland has been learning how to adapt to Hollywood filmmaking techniques is because her activism on behalf of the Solidarity union forced her into exile in 1981. While the fall of Communism has allowed her to occasionally return to Poland, she has mixed feelings.
"Economically, its very good. Theres a lot of good energy; but spiritually, its pretty bad. Everything is about money, but the countrys in pretty good shape. I think its the best of the post-Communist countries."
If living in exile might have created some hardships for her, Holland says that there have been advantages. "It's not that I'm a masochist or that Im looking for trouble. Even bad things that happened to me were at least interesting. Im curious about any kind of life experience."