Filmed to perfection by William Wyler in 1949 as “The Heiress” and successfully revived recently in Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s stage adaptation, Henry James’ “Washington Square” emerges with only a portion of its force and complexity intact in this new screen version. Quite faithful to the novel but imbued with something of a feminist twist, Agnieszka Holland’s handsome picture captures the ambiguity of this 19th-century tale about a plain young woman’s deception by a seductive fortune hunter, but misses the full measure of its acute psychological precision and bitter irony. Critical reaction will be divided, but enough strong notices should position this rare specialized item from the Disney camp for a good commercial career in upscale situations and limited general runs.
James’ story, perhaps the most familiar of all his full-length works, is in many ways a can’t-miss proposition, an almost unavoidably involving study of a naive young woman’s struggle to shake off the influence of a domineering father and fulfill her love affair with an uncommonly good-looking suitor.
Concerning a small number of principal characters and confined largely to a limited number of indoor settings, the novel was always a natural for legit dramatization. As gingerly fleshed out by debuting screenwriter Carol Doyle, it now begins with primal early events in the life of Catherine Sloper: her birth, which took the life of her mother, and a surprise birthday party 10 or 12 years later when the terrified girl wets her pants at the beginning of a musical recital.
When the 26-year-old Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is first seen, she is pathetically trying to please her haughty father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), waiting on him hand and foot upon his return from work. Catherine is a sheltered, utterly unworldly lady of average looks, awkward manners, limited intelligence and no social distinction in 1850 New York City other than her undoubted inheritance, which promises to be substantial.
Doted upon and unrealistically encouraged by her Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith), who lives in the luxurious house with the father and daughter, Catherine, at a party, meets the darkly handsome Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), who takes an interest in her unlike any man in her life ever has. Leigh, with Holland’s presumed assent, pushes her character’s clumsiness and skittishness when faced with masculine attention to an almost embarrassing degree, making Catherine seem more a buffoon than a wallflower.
Despite her childishness, Morris persists in the courtship, which proceeds in a manner that would normally, under the conventions of the day, be expected to lead to engagement and marriage. The disdainful Dr. Sloper, who would appear to think so little of his daughter that he would never imagine that she could legitimately attract a mate, has particular suspicions of this Mr. Townsend, noting the reduced circumstances of his family, and goes to far as to offer him cash if he will withdraw.
When an offended Morris insists that he wants to marry Catherine, the stakes mount, with the bird-brained, hopelessly romantic Aunt Lavinia suggesting that the couple elope and the doctor threatening that Catherine will be disinherited if she ever so much as lays eyes on Morris again. At the drama’s halfway point, Dr. Sloper convinces his daughter to take a trip with him to Europe, which he extends from three weeks to a year in the hope that Catherine will weaken in her resolve to marry Morris, who has said that he’ll wait for her.
Although Catherine returns from Europe seemingly so much more self-possessed and sure of herself that she could now convincingly attract any number of men, she is as committed as ever to marrying Morris, whose true colors shortly become apparent even to her. The trauma of her shattered expectations is played out full-throttle in Holland’s staging, to the ludicrous extreme of literally plunging Catherine into the mud. But the wrap-up and coda give the character a self-realization and inner contentment that constitute a mildly feminist reinterpretation of the material, something that’s not in James but may play plausibly to modern audiences.
The overwhelming irony of the novel is that no matter how insensitive and casually cruel Dr. Sloper is to his daughter, he is also unerringly right in his instincts about Morris. In its emphasis on the father’s disregard for Catherine, and his continuing to blame her, however unconsciously, for his beloved wife’s death, the film reduces this element substantially and oversimplifies what, in James and in the earlier film, were subtle and satisfyingly complex matters.
Also problematic is Holland’s cinematic approach, which in its less-than-graceful camera scheme and often arbitrary interaction of shots represents nothing close to the visual correlative of James’ cool, refined, utterly precise literary style. The story is so good that it retains a reasonable amount of its force, but the rather scattershot and sometimes overheated treatment here is, in fact, not especially well suited to it.
While the performances of Jason Leigh, Finney and Chaplin have their fine points, especially Finney’s in its prideful sense of superiority and veiled shame over a disappointing child, they ultimately seem like decent road company replacements for the definitive readings of Olivia de Havilland, Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift in the original film. Smith is all fidgety fussing as the nosy aunt, while Judith Ivey and Betsy Brantley have a good moment or two apiece as women on opposite ends of the Manhattan social spectrum.
With Baltimore locations standing in for the New York of nearly 150 years ago, pic is colorful on the production side, with Allan Starski’s production design, Anna Sheppard’s costumes and Jerzy Zielinski’s lensing conjuring up a solid sense of time and place.