Washington Square

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

November 28, 1997

Washington Square is a rare film. It’s an adaptation of a Henry James book that manages to capture much of the intricacies of the source material, and it’s a remake (of the 1949 classic The Heiress) that offers a fresh and worthwhile perspective on the original.

The new film concerns the plight of Catherine Sloper (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in a surprisingly unaffected performance). Catharine is the heiress to a considerable fortune, but potential suitors avoid her. She’s awkward, plain-looking and has limited talents. Her one gift is her affectionate nature, which even her father, Dr. Sloper, (Albert Finney) ignores. The Doctor secretly blames Catharine for the death of her mother and openly laments that Catherine lacks her beauty and wit.

Catherine’s days of neglect end when she is discovered by the young Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin from The Truth about Cats and Dogs). Morris is handsome, sophisticated and charming and gives Catharine unprecedented attention. Unfortunately, he’s also penniless and doesn’t seem that eager to find a job. Dr. Sloper, out of concern for Catherine and for his own ego, suspects that Morris is simply after her inheritance and does everything he can to keep the lovesick Catharine away from him.

The story line is simple, but the joys of James’ book lay in its detailed characterizations. First-time screenwriter Carol Doyle and director Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden) manage to capture much of the book’s contents and add their own perspectives without intruding on the original story. While previous interpretations treated the story as a revenge saga, Holland and Doyle instead follow Catherine’s awakening. Even when Catherine’s longing for Morris is hopeless, Catherine gradually becomes more confident, poised and independent. This new interpretation works because of Doyle’s sharp humor and Leigh’s effortless handling of the transition.

The real standout, however, is Chaplin. He’s beguiling enough to be likable even when Morris’ interest in Catharine appears suspect, and he gives the role enough earnestness to occasionally erase doubts about his character’s integrity. In many ways, this ambiguity is the heart of the film.


This same subtlety could have been applied to Dr. Sloper. While Finney gives a typically fine performance, the movie’s take on the Doctor is too one-sided. Because the Doctor occupies much of the later portion of the film, Washington Square might have been more involving if he had been more evenly presented.

Nonetheless, Holland’s direction is energetic and keeps Washington Square from becoming too sedate. While the gorgeous recreation of 19th century New York is to be expected, Washington Square actually looks like a Merchant-Ivory (Howard’s End) movie with more outward passion and technical panache. Henry James may be a tough author to adapt, but The Wings of the Dove and Washington Square prove it’s worth the struggle (PG). Rating: 8.


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Ó 1997 Dan Lybarger

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