Film Review: Washington Square (1997)


Woman romantically pursuing a man on the account of his wealth instead of her own feelings is a popular trope in fiction. Washington Square, 1997 period drama directed by Agnieszka Holland, presents the opposite scenario. The plot, based on the eponymous classic novel by Henry James, is set in mid 19th Century New York City. Dr. Austin Sloper (played by Albert Finney) is respected and wealthy physician who can be proud of many things, but not of beauty or intellect of his only daughter Catherine (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh). She is in early 20ies and, due to her unattractive looks and shy demeanour, causes little interest among possible suitors. When this happens with young and handsome Morris Townsend (played by Ben Chaplin), it represents a huge surprise. Catherine doesn’t need much to start returning affection to him, encouraged by her aunt Lavinia (played by Maggie Smith). Her father, however, considers Townsend to be someone too good to be true and suspects that young man pursues his daughter for motives other than romantic. His suspicions are all but confirmed when he learns of young man’s poor financial state, which would be much improved with Catherine’s rich inheritance. His refusal to accept the engagement would lead to conflict with Catherine, forced to choose between love and inheritance.

James’ novel has been adapted into Broadway play The Heiress, in 1949 further adapted into eponymous classic Hollywood film starring Olivia De Havilland in performance that earned her an Oscar. In 1990s works by Henry James became popular among film makers and the setting was quite trendy thanks to Merchant Ivory and other productions of period dramas set in Victorian period. Polish film maker Agnieszka Holland, unlike other female directors dealing with such material (like Jane Campion in The Portrait of a Lady, didn’t bother much to give new “hip” feminist interpretation to old literary works. Apart from few details that couldn’t have be used in 1940s adaptation – like certain biological functions or brief scene in cheap brothels – Washington Square is very straight and simple melodrama. Holland relies mostly on her cast, most notably Jennifer Jason Leigh who uses rare opportunity to show her skills playing a passive and not particularly attractive character. The film strays from a formula only near the ending when Catherine too abruptly transforms into some kind of proto-feminist heroine. This detail, however, isn’t enough to deprive Washington Square from passing grade and recommendation for audience that likes period dramas.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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