Respectable Street

Jennifer Jason Leigh follows up one of her smallest, and weakest, roles -- in A Thousand Acres -- with a far more challenging, and formidable, performance in Washington Square. This new film version of Henry James's 1880 novel chronicles the courtship of a wealthy girl with no obvious attractive qualities.

But the real challenge here was to director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa, The Secret Garden) and screenwriter Carol Doyle. Despite his stature in American literature, James's work was rarely filmed before the late '70s; even more rarely has it been filmed well. Arguably the best James adaptation to date -- running neck and neck with Jack Clayton's 1961 The Innocents, which is based on The Turn of the Screw -- is The Heiress, a 1949 William Wyler film adapted from (you guessed it) Washington Square.

Since The Heiress is, on its own terms, nearly perfect (Montgomery Clift's performance as suitor Morris Townsend is its weakest element), one is forced to wonder whether there is any legitimate aesthetic motivation behind a remake. In fact, Washington Square is significantly different from the earlier film -- and it succeeds as an engrossing piece of social observation. It's almost good enough to suggest James as the next 19th-century Hollywood fad, now that the supply of Jane Austen books has dried up.

The Heiress played fast and loose with James's story. That film preempted criticism by giving James a "suggested by" credit, which was fair enough. Screenwriters Ruth and Augustus Goetz (working from their own play) imposed a stronger and simpler dramatic structure on James's rambling story. What they sacrificed in terms of realism and psychological complexity was justified by The Heiress's devastating emotional impact.

With Washington Square, Holland and her collaborators have chosen to make a truer version of the book.

The film opens with a long tracking shot -- perhaps two or three minutes -- that introduces the heroine, her milieu and the formative circumstances of her unhappiness. The camera looks down over Washington Square circa 1830, swoops down to a brownstone, in a window, through the kitchen, up the steps to the master bedroom where Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney) weeps desperately over his dead wife, and into the nursery, where we see the infant whom Mrs. Sloper has died giving birth to.

The baby seems wholly helpless and innocent, and so she shall remain for far too long.

A few brief scenes showing Catherine as an adolescent (Sara Ruzicka) quickly suggest that this chubby, graceless child is an embarrassment to the father whom she so desperately loves. (The most memorable of these scenes doesn't come from James and feels woefully out of place.)

When Catherine grows into a slender young woman (Leigh), she still seems incapable of pleasing her father. So intent is he on measuring her by the impossible standard of his idealized late wife that he cannot see the charm of her devotion to him. He strains to treat her with affection, but his impatience and contempt show through.

One day, the Slopers, including Catherine's live-in companion, her Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith), go to the engagement party of her cousin Marian (Jennifer Garner). At the party, Catherine attracts the attention of dashing, rakish Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin, looking strikingly like Clift), who seems utterly taken with her. Catherine falls so desperately in love that she becomes even clumsier and more tongue-tied than usual -- which only charms Morris into an equal clumsiness.

Morris takes to calling on Catherine every day. Dr. Sloper, upon sizing him up, concludes that he is a gold digger, pure and simple. After all, what besides her money could possibly attract a young man to Catherine?

Much like Christopher Hampton -- whose recent adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent cleaved to the book rather than to Hitchcock's film version, and generally suffered for it -- the filmmakers' refusal to settle for a superfluous remake results in something virtuous but imperfect.

In certain specifics, the new version bests The Heiress. Clift's Morris was a clear-cut bounder; we never for a moment believed his intentions. Chaplin's performance, on the other hand, leaves open the possibility that Morris actually may love Catherine -- albeit in a selfish way. And Finney gives Dr. Sloper an initial degree of charm totally absent in Ralph Richardson's icier interpretation; we are likelier to see him as a flawed human being than as an out-and-out S.O.B., even when his stubbornness seems far fiercer than Richardson suggested.

The casting of the lead always presents a problem in this story: James never suggests that Catherine is ugly, merely plain. The Heiress did a good job of muting de Havilland's beauty, but hey, she still had Hollywood movie-star looks. Leigh may not be as classically beautiful, but she's far too cute here to seem as unmarriageable as the story requires.

In spite of this, Washington Square is an admirable, socially and psychologically acute film, with uniformly first-rate performances, technical bravura ... and an almost passionless acceptance of its heroine's fate as a single woman.

Washington Square.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland. With Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin, Maggie Smith and Judith Ivey.

Rated PG.
115 minutes.

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