Washington Square (1997)

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Ben Chaplin,
Washington Square is a movie starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Maggie Smith. In this adaptation of the Henry James novel set in 19th-century New York City, a wealthy spinster with an overbearing father is pursued by...
  • 6.7 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Henry James, Carol Doyle, Writer:
  • Agnieszka Holland, Director:
  • Julie Bergman Sender, Roger Birnbaum, Producer:
10 / 10

Jennifer Jason Leigh Is Miraculous

This is a masterpiece of film-making, both because of the talented Polish director Agnieszka Holland, and the performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh. This is the best performance by Leigh which I have seen, and I always think she is inspired, but here she truly transcends herself. It is simply one of the greatest cinematic performances of the 1990s. Rarely has an actress so intimately portrayed the most subtle nuances of mood so well. Such an intimate film could only have been directed by a woman, and I don't believe Leigh could have done this for a male director, not even her chum, the late Robert Altman. The performance by Leigh is really as delicate as gossamer, and she spins a transparent silky web of tormented love with such intensity she outdoes even Olivia de Havilland, who played the role before her in 'The Heiress' long ago, and to do that is a miracle! The only way to describe Leigh's performance is to say that she has a 'naked face'. She seems determined to hide nothing. Pathological shyness has rarely been shown so clearly. Throughout the film, Leigh does a progressive striptease of the soul, and she ends up with nothing on but her hard-earned sense of self worth, which cloaks her admirably. Ben Chaplin is a perfect choice for the young suitor, and he mixes goodness and elegance with the desperate grasping nature of the character in an ideal cocktail that is deadly while it is sweet. And Albert Finney surpasses himself as the father so eaten up with bitterness at his wife's death in childbirth that he can never forgive his pathetic daughter for 'killing her', and actively hates and persecutes her for her entire lifetime. Henry James wrote the novel, and he knew a thing or two about people. I once knew someone who had actually met Henry James, namely Dorothy Pound, and I asked her what he was like. (Well you would, wouldn't you?) She said she never had any real conversation with him because he spent all his time talking to Ezra, and they would meet from time to time strolling in Hyde Park, when James always had an attractive young woman on his arm, he would say something pleasant to the Pounds, and then he would be off. I said but what was he LIKE? She said: 'He wore a beautiful red waistcoat.' So there you go. And so does Albert Finney, as a crusty old port drinker with an American accent in this harrowing and tragic tale of intensity in the Square. By the way, the film was shot in Baltimore, and achieves a high degree of authenticity with well-preserved old houses, both inside and out. As time passes in the story, the style of 19th century costumes changes appropriately. Everything is done with finesse. The film commences with the most stunning continuous moving shot, starting in the square, then going up to the front door of the house, 21 Washington Square, then entering the house, moving through it, going up the stairs, and entering the bedroom while a newborn baby cries O.S. and the mother lies dead on her bed with her eyes open wide. Finney lies down beside her and says: 'Now you will be together in heaven with our son.' What a way to open a film! And the final scene of the film, which I must not describe, is equally impressive in a completely different way, with the last shot featuring an incredible lighting effect. Technically, the film is perfect. Holland did not have Wajda as her mentor for nothing, and she is a true artist. I believe this is the finest of all the many excellent films based on Henry James stories, and most of them are so good, that is high praise indeed.

10 / 10

FINE ADAPTATION OF THE HENRY JAMES NOVEL

It is unfair to compare the 1997 film "Washington Square" to the 1949 film "The Heiress." "Washington Square" is a faithful adaptation of Henry James' eponymous classic novel; "The Heiress" is based on the stage adaptation of the James novel by Augustus and Ruth Goetz.

Hence, the two most dramatic scenes in "The Heiress" do not appear in "Washington Square" -- Morris Townsend's cruel jilting of Catherine right before their planned elopement, and Catherine's revenge in the final scene, where Morris is left pounding on the bolted door.

There were many fine performances in "Washington Square," most notably Jennifer Jason Leigh. Her many expressions of hurt, pain, and anguish are heart-breaking to watch. Ben Chaplin's outstanding portrayal of "the fortune hunter" is surprisingly sympathetic. Maggie Smith's Aunt Lavinia is seen as meddling and trouble-making. The soundtrack is beautiful, and the set designs and costumes provide an accurate portrayal of 19th century New York.

7 / 10

If you like this movie, then you should try....

If you liked this movie, then you should try William Wyler's "The Heiress" (1949) featuring GWTW's Melanie, Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift. Both of these movies contain moving performances from all of the lead actors. Catherine Sloper is skillfully portrayed as an unworldly, naive, young woman who falls for financially-unmatched, well-cultured, dashing Morris Townsend. The overprotective yet unloving Dr. Austin Sloper, Catherine's father, will make your blood boil! Both movies have the making for some intense soap opera-like drama - suspenseful in every regard, keeps you reaching for that bowl of popcorn or that box of Kleenex. To truly understand the plight of the young lovers and especially to get a sense of the tension behind the relationship between daughter and father, one must view "The Heiress" and "Washington Square" for the two films are lovely by themselves, but they certainly complement each other. You'll see what I mean after watching both ;) Enjoy!

4 / 10

Flat movie which betrays the spirit of James' novel

"Washington Square" is a flat, shabby adaptation of the short novel by Henry James. Indeed, the novel is very good, but far from the level of James' masterpieces. Moreover its simple, eventless story seems unsuited to make it into a film (although William Wyler, with his "The Heiress", gave in 1949 a beautiful version of the novel).

Anyway, the movie completely betrays the spirit of this work of the great American writer. In the novel, the heroine Catherine is shy, not very attractive and somewhat clumsy, but nonetheless she is a sound, intelligent young woman, and she's not as naive as it may seem. Her attachment for her father is dignified and respectful, with no morbid sides in it. Along three quarters of the movie, Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) just seems to be mentally retarded, poor thing. In the last quarter, she suddenly (and incredibly) becomes intelligent, aware of her dignity as a woman, and all that.

The director Agnieszka Holland has added two vulgar scenes to the story. The first, when the nervous child Catherine has, well, troubles with her vesica. The second scene, when we see on the background a sort of open-air brothel, with prostitutes taking their customers behind tents, and so on. Nothing could be more contrary to the spirit and artistic ideals of Henry James. It is notorious that the writer was extremely decent and demure even for the standards of the Victorian age. I defy anyone to find any coarseness anywhere in the thousands of pages of James' huge literary production. I really was particularly annoyed by these two scenes.

Yes, I know that a director needs reasonable freedom in the screen adaptation of a novel. But if a director utterly ignores or misunderstands the art of an author (here Henry James), I don't see the point of using his work to make a bad movie.

The acting is adequate to the movie: poor and flat, in spite of the talent of Albert Finney and Maggie Smith. "Washington Square" is definitely a non-recommendable film.

7 / 10

It does not work for me.

I do not know who is to blame, Miss Leigh or her director, but her performance as Catherine is almost impossible to watch. Ben Chaplin on the other hand does a superior job - against all odds as far as I am concerned. His character is entirely too charming and appealing. but certainly not shown as greedy enough, to put up with Leigh's character's silliness. Chaplin appears bemused by what cannot possibly be understood as Leigh's shyness and lack of grace, but rather her orthopedic unsteadiness. There has to be some element of believability to his interest, but as played it is incomprehensible. The performances do not jibe. Maggie Smith and Albert Finney are, of course, wonderful despite any effort to derail them. The supporting cast is also a pleasure to watch. What a pity, too, the leads don't work together because the production is lovely to look at.