Review: Washington Square (1997)

Directed by: Agnieszka Holland | 115 minutes | drama, romance | Actors: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Ben Chaplin, Judith Ivey, Arthur Laupus, Jennifer Garner, Robert Stanton, Betsy Brantley, Nancy Daly, Sara Ruzicka, Rachel Layne Sacrey, Rachel Osborne, Scott Jaeck, Peter Maloney, Lauren Hulsey, Sara Constance Marshall, Marissa Anna Muro, Loretto McNally, Eva Jean Berg, David Hildebrand, James J. Waltz, Peter Klaus, Jack Lilley, Janet Paparazzo, Emily Allyn Barth, Brandi Burkhardt, Mike Campbell, Katie Whicker

“The Portrait of a Lady”, “The Turn of the Screw”, “The Ambassadors”, “The Wings of the Dove”. They are all well-known stories by the American novelist Henry James (1843-1916), who is considered one of the key figures in realism in literature. Although he was also influenced by other genres, including the travel story, the ghost story and the detective. His books are also known for their social criticism. In Washington Square, a book he wrote in 1881, he paints a portrait of a young, insecure and impressionable woman who becomes wise through harm and disgrace. William Wyler once filmed the story in 1949 under the title “The Heiress”, with Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson in the lead roles. Agniekszka Holland does it all over again with her 1997 film adaptation, “Washington Square”. Her version closely follows James’s book, but gives it a subtle feminist twist.

The story is set in New York, in the second half of the nineteenth century. Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a drab, shy and insecure woman who does everything she can to please her father, the well-to-do doctor Austin Sloper (Albert Finney). He has never made it a secret that he blames her for his wife’s death when she brought her into the world and for being disappointed in what has become of her. At the engagement party of a friend (Jennifer Garner), Catherine meets the handsome Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), who immediately turns her into work. Unaccustomed to all that attention, Catherine falls head over heels in love with Morris, to the horror of her father who thinks he is only after her money. He can’t imagine anyone seeing his daughter as charming and attractive. To change Catherine’s mind, he takes her on a journey through Europe. Morris promises to wait for her, even if Austin extends the trip from three weeks to twelve months. Austin threatens to disinherit his daughter if she doesn’t break off her engagement. Catherine doesn’t want to, but discovers that Morris isn’t the dream man she thought he would be after all.

Anyone who feasts on costume dramas will get along well with “Washington Square”. The decoration of the film is beautiful and settings, sets and clothing are taken care of down to the last detail. The story of Henry James is also still rock solid. The young woman who learns painful but valuable life lessons still appeals to the imagination. The problem facing “Washington Square” is the earlier 1949 film adaptation, which is hard to beat. It is difficult to judge the Dutch version without drawing parallels with Wyler’s version of the same story. “Washington Square” lacks the psychological impact that made “The Heiress” so powerful, nor does it sufficiently exploit the irony of the story. In its place, we get a feminist slant, which only emerges towards the end of the film. Just a little too late to really impress. The acting is strong, especially of Albert Finney as the stubborn, haughty Austin Sloper, who has belittled and despised his daughter for years. Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Catherine, is too insecure to say anything about it. It is nice to see how she blossoms towards the end into a self-confident young woman. Finney and Leigh have the thankless task of having to compete with Ralph Richardson and Olivia De Havilland (who won an Oscar for her role), but they are certainly not bad.

Ben Chaplin as charmer Morris Townsend also puts his best foot forward, but he lacks the mystique and intensity of Monty Clift. Lady Maggie Smith stars in a supporting role. She plays Aunt Lavinia, Austin’s hopelessly romantic sister, who tries to stimulate the budding love between Catherine and Morris. There is little to criticize about the acting of the entire crew and the film looks beautiful. Those who have not seen “The Heiress” can lose themselves completely in the sickly romanticism of this drama by Agniekszka Holland. Anyone who can compare it to William Wyler’s version of the story will feel that “Washington Square” lacks the brilliance and intensity that made this film a classic. Washington Square is a well-crafted romantic drama, but not a high-flyer.

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