Strictly by the book Review: Stuffy 'Washington Square' fails to breathe much life into the Henry James classic.

October 17, 1997|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"Washington Square," Agnieszka Holland's adaptation of the Henry James novel, starts out with a long, lovely crane shot that sends a tip-toeing camera from a jewel-like park, through a townhouse window, up a narrow staircase and into a bedchamber. It's an exhilarating beginning, but one that belies what is to come, which is a series of stale, static scenes that capture the details of 19th-century life but endow the characters with about as much energy as wax fruit.

This lavishly appointed, well-upholstered and largely lifeless production suffers from that all-too-common ailment of films with earnest aspirations. Hemmed in by good intentions, hobbled by stiff performances from its key players, "Washington Square" finally collapses from the strain of misguided fidelity -- ironically, the fate of its own heroine.

Said heroine, if she can be called that, is Miss Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a wan, ungraceful young woman who lives with her father (Albert Finney) and Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith) in New York's plush Washington Square. (New York circa 1850 is gorgeously portrayed in "Washington Square" by the city of Baltimore, whose stately lines and pleasant prospects have been judiciously exploited by Holland and her creative team.)

Her mother having died during childbirth, Catherine has been living in guilty solicitude ever since, doting on her gruff father and living according to his will, which is that she not marry until his death. (When she does marry, it should be to some unthrilling widower.)

But Dr. Sloper's plan goes awry when his daughter is set upon by a suitor of quite an unexpected cut. Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin of "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") personifies all the qualities Catherine so blatantly lacks: good looks, lots of past adventures and a glib charm with which to show them off. One thing he doesn't have is a fortune. When he pursues Catherine, eventually asking for her hand in marriage, she must confront the question of whether he is truly in love or merely a fortune-hunter. She must also sort out whether her devotion to her father has been misguided all along.

Holland has taken such great pains with "Washington Square" that it's difficult to specify just what hangs it up. The problem may be with Carol Doyle's script, which takes no delight in the manners or vernacular of the period. Perhaps the director thought the best way to honor the original book was to make a film just as cumbersome as James' prose.

At any rate, this bloodless tableau isn't much helped by the two lead actors. As Catherine, Leigh guffaws in inappropriate outbursts and continually bumps into things (she has an odd way of combining affectation and naturalism); Chaplin plays the sweet-spoken suitor with dark-eyed attractiveness (reminiscent of Montgomery Clift, who starred with Olivia de Havilland in the 1949 version of the tale, "The Heiress"), but with a distracting lack of confidence.

In fact, as the psychological motives and manipulations increase in the course of "Washington Square," it's the couple's elders who emerge as the most interesting characters. Finney, at his most floridly grumpy, applies the appropriate measure of vinegar to Dr. Sloper's gruff patriarch.

But it's Smith who breathes life into the production. As the meddling Aunt Lavinia -- secretly besotted with Catherine's beau -- she delivers the film's best lines (a headache is a "perfect circlet of pain") with trilling, birdlike perfection. Compared with the endless parlor recitals, garden receptions, park strolls and other non-events that make up most of "Washington Square," her neurasthenic presence is the life of the party.

The sin of raiding the classics for material is understandable; after all, the themes of James and his contemporaries -- filial loyalty, parental betrayal, the freighted dynamic of love and money -- continue to resonate through the ages.

But simply throwing a work on screen without taking anything by way of creative license seems an empty exercise indeed; the result is the visual equivalent to books on tape. As yet another book on film, "Washington Square" might be a reasonably respectable addition to the stacks; it's just as a film on film that it falls unimaginatively short of the mark.

'Washington Square'

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Released by Hollywood Pictures

Rated PG (mature thematic elements and brief, mild language)

Sun score: **

Pub Date: 10/17/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.