Nearly 50 years ago, Ruth and Augustus Goetz's play The Heiress, adapted from Henry James' novel Washington Square, became the basis of the William Wyler film that won a Best Actress Oscar for Olivia de Havilland and conferred star status on the young Montgomery Clift. Cherry Jones was awarded a Best Actress Tony for the play's recent Broadway revival, a surprise critical and box-office success. Given its powerful story, its fascinating characters, and the commercial viability of big-screen costume drama, it's no surprise that Washington Square has found its way back to the screen.
Technically not a remake--debuting screenwriter Carol Doyle used the novel, not the play, as her source--Washington Square is painstakingly produced, dramatically compelling, and acted with skill and intensity. The choices of Polish director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa; Olivier, Olivier; The Secret Garden; Total Eclipse) and star Jennifer Jason Leigh clearly demonstrate Hollywood Pictures' art-house approach to the material, a decision that pays off.
Set in 1850s New York, Washington Square is the story of Catherine Sloper (Leigh), a painfully shy, socially awkward, privileged young woman whose mother died in childbirth. Although Catherine dotes on her wealthy father (Albert Finney), Dr. Sloper blames his daughter for the loss of his beloved wife and treats her with a contemptuousness that borders on hatred. Worse, he doesn't even realize it.
When handsome, penniless Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin) appears on the scene, his sights set on the spinsterish heiress, everyone but Catherine and her giddy chaperone Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith) assumes that he's after the Sloper fortune. The doctor threatens to disinherit Catherine if she marries the ardent young man, but she's more than willing to pay the price. The question remains, is Townsend?
What gives Washington Square its contemporary resonance is its framing as a coming-of-age story. It's obvious early on that Catherine is going to suffer terribly at the hands of her father, the man she loves, and the companion who lives through her vicariously. Whether she'll emerge from the wreckage with dignity and peace of mind or become a bitter, defeated victim is the question that drives the movie and imbues it with power.
One of America's finest screen actresses, Leigh has been known to lean heavily on her arsenal of vocal and physical mannerisms. Here, however, her evolution from an artless misfit to a mature woman who's been tempered by experience is utterly convincing. Chaplin may lack Clift's luminous vulnerability, but his performance is nonetheless on target. Finney and Smith light into the roles of the hateful father and his foolish sister with the contained force of twin hurricanes, and Judith Ivey makes her presence felt as Catherine's Aunt Elizabeth, the only character who isn't afraid to confront Sloper about his treatment of his daughter.
The work of cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski (Houseguest), production designer Allan Starksi (Schindler's List), costume designer Anna Sheppard (Schindler's List) and composer Jan A. P. Kaczmarek (Total Eclipse) lends visual, aural and emotional texture to Holland's directorial design and underlines the film's distinct European flavor. Washington Square will give moviegoers in search of an engrossing period drama something they can sink their teeth into.