Film review: Washington Square

Movie's focus is a father-daughter relationship

Published: Sunday, Feb. 1 1998 12:01 a.m. MST

Despite a terrific central performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh and some handsome period costuming, "Washington Square" is destined to be known as the "other" Henry James film.

It may seem unfair to compare this historical drama to "The Wings of the Dove," a far superior film that was also adapted from one of James' works, but the two share some of the same plot devices — including a romance that's doomed to fail because one of the characters is penniless.

However, where "The Wings of the Dove" succeeded in spite of its downbeat subject matter, "Washington Square" is so depressing in tone that it becomes overwhelming. That's really a pity since the 1947 film "The Heiress," also adapted from the same James novel, was able to treat the subject matter with better balance.

Set in 19th-century New York, the film centers around the relationship between the shy and awkward Catherine Sloper (Leigh) and her overbearing physician father (Albert Finney). It seems he has borne a lifelong grudge against his daughter (her mother died of complications during Catherine's difficult birth), and he has withheld his affections accordingly.

Putting a further strain on their relationship is Catherine's obvious attraction to Morris Townshend (Ben Chaplin), an impoverished suitor who wants to marry her in spite of her faults. But her father believes the man is just after Catherine's considerable inheritance and frowns upon the burgeoning romance.

He even whisks her away to Europe for a year, believing it will chase the pesky Morris away. However, her incurably romantic Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith) encourages Morris to take heart and remain faithful, believing that if he does so Catherine's father will finally give his consent to their marriage.

Leigh is great at conveying her character's almost heartbreaking loneliness, and Finney is similarly convincing as her overbearing father. But Chaplin isn't completely believable, nor is first-time screenwriter Carol Doyle's dialogue, which sounds pretty contemporary.

And Agnieszka Holland's direction is too overwrought for the most part.

"Washington Square" is rated PG for a somewhat lengthy sex scene that's primarily overheard, brief partial nudity and glimpses of nude statues, a gory childbirth scene and a gory magician's trick, a couple of profanities and a vulgar gag.

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