Eye For Film >> Movies >> Washington Square (1997) Film Review
Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray
A performance of delectable sensitivity by Jennifer Jason Leigh, a debut feature film treatment, that does justice to the author, from the Irish actress, Carol Doyle, and the European sensibility of Polish director, Agnieszka Holland, makes this an almost perfect miniature of a movie.
The story of plain Catherine, the only child of Dr Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), a fashionable New York physician at the end of the last century, is as simple as it is heartrending. Her mother died in childbirth and her father never quite forgave her. She tries so hard to please. Either he doesn't notice, or is too irritated to acknowledge. She has none of her mother's charm and at parties stays by the wall, silenced by shyness. When Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin) takes an interest in her, it is quite a suprise. The austere doctor assumes quite naturally that the boy is after her money. She is an heiress and he, by all accounts, has no job and little inheritance. What he does have is an honest face, perfect manners, a conversational flair and a passionate vocabulary.
The doctor's sister, Lavinia (Maggie Smith), lives with them. She looks on Morris with the affection of a son she never had and is forever encouraging him in his awkward courtship. Catherine is so entranced she cannot breathe, cannot speak. Love for Morris envelopes her, like a cloak of dreams. He becomes almost ethereal, too golden for such an ordinary girl. She feels choked, elevated, strengthened and undone.
Meanwhile, the doctor is making his own plans to stop the romance. He is not a bad man. He believes in the right way, his way, and the wrong way, everyone else's. He considers Morris unworthy and won't listen to Lavinia. He cannot fathom Catherine's depth of feeling, or to what extent she will fight for what she wants. They are, after all, closer in character than either will ever admit.
Henry James had a unique insight into the female psyche, as well as first hand knowledge of upper class Victorian society. Washington Square is more personal than Edith Wharton's The Age Of Innocence, although constricted by the same conventions. Holland's evocation of the period is lovingly detailed, with exquisite camera work by Jerzy Zielinski. Chaplin, an English actor of great promise and no relation to Sir Charlie, is utterly convincing in a role that could have been cheesecake, while Finney and Smith surpass themselves. Jason Leigh is too vulnerable to watch at times, shedding skin like a snake to experience Catherine's pain. Love hurts. Loss hurts. She gives everything she has and when you think she will break, she gives more.Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001