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Henry Shamed

Washington Square
Window of the Dove: Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) peers out of the gilded cage fashioned for her by her overbearing father.

'Washington Square' falls short of the Master's famous novella

By Tai Moses

FOUR YEARS AGO, director Mike Nichols considered remaking The Heiress, William Wyler's 1949 film adaptation of the Henry James novella Washington Square, but he finally decided against it, concluding that Wyler's film was flawless. Too bad Agnieszka Holland didn't share Nichols' opinion, because her new version fails to improve upon either James' classic or Wyler's moody melodrama.

Washington Square is the story of a shy heiress who falls in love with a handsome but impecunious young man of whom her stern father disapproves. The focus of James' story, which takes place in the drawing rooms of 19th-century New York, is the civilized yet relentless battle of wills between meek Catherine Sloper and her tyrannical father. Albert Finney is sufficiently convincing as the caustic Dr. Sloper, and Ben Chaplin is appealingly desperate as Morris Townsend, the charming fortune hunter. As Catherine's overimaginative aunt, Mrs. Penniman, Maggie Smith has a grand scene-stealing time. Where Washington Square founders most is in Jennifer Jason Leigh's overamped portrayal of Catherine--the role that earned Olivia de Havilland an Oscar in The Heiress. Leigh is not known for nuance or subtlety, precisely the qualities that inform James' novel. Leigh's Catherine is a clumsy oaf, a caricature of the docile, inarticulate young woman in James' narrative. Next to the modulated performances of the rest of the cast, the obviousness of Leigh's acting throws the film off balance.

As with her previous films, Total Eclipse and Europa, Europa, Holland proves a competent storyteller, but her interpretation of the material is ploddingly literal, lacking the wit and irony that made the novel so delightful. Aside from attempts to heat up the psychological drama with decidedly un-Jamesian histrionics, this is a film that takes few risks; it has all the looks but none of the texture of Henry James.

Washington Square (PG; min.), directed by Agnieska Holland, written by Carol Doyle, based on the novel by Henry James, photographed by Jerzy Zielinski and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney.

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From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of Metro.

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