By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated October 17, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT

Washington Square

  • Movie

Washington Square
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Ben Chaplin

New York City natives Henry James and his well-traveled friend Edith Wharton led cosmopolitan lives. But it is because they wrote about what was closest to home — observing local society in a teacup — that their work has the kind of adaptability, psychological intimacy, and visual richness a good filmmaker craves. In Washington Square (Hollywood), Agnieszka Holland’s lively adaptation of one of James’ early (1881) masterpieces, the drawing room of wealthy widower Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney) and his daughter Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) contain a dramatic universe.

In that genteel setting, a father harbors a tangle of feelings (resentment, pity, selfishness) toward his plain, devoted daughter. The young woman (eager, unsure, affection starved), unexpectedly wooed by a suitor (Ben Chaplin) much too handsome and penniless to be trusted by a rich man, is torn between duty to her father (who forbids the match) and glorious, unguarded, it’s-about-time feelings of love. A widowed aunt (Maggie Smith) flutters in the corner, meddling. In one 19th-century woman’s romantic woes, human complexity makes as mysterious and moving a cinematic story as the rise and fall of a hundred porn stars.

Holland, the perceptive director of Europa, Europa and The Secret Garden, brings a contemporary feminist eye to the proceedings. (She also brings a painter’s eye; her color scheme is the same as that of a 17th-century Van Dyck still life.) In contempo-fem terms, this Catherine is more ”damaged” at the start than James suggests and more ”empowered” at the conclusion. (Leigh’s characteristically stylized portrayal actually has the poor clod bumping and tripping in early scenes.) As filled out by Finney in full thespian gust, Dr. Sloper disdains his daughter more terribly than a reader might remember. And in classic Maggie Smith fashion, a small role becomes a chance for the old girl to very slyly steal the spotlight whenever she’s in a scene; I bet the other actors wished Smith were a little less … fascinating.

Of course, there’s one other way in which Holland modernizes the proceedings: She liberates her camera with a swinging freedom of movement. Hers is the kind of expressive stride that can only be accorded to directors not confined by the corsets and petticoats of Washington Square. B+

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Washington Square

  • Movie
  • PG