Movie Review By Andrea Chase
It's a relief to discover that there are people other than Merchant-Ivory who can make a Merchant-Ivory looking film. There are, after all, only so many flicks they can churn out in one lifetime. What gives me this sort of hope is an opulent adaptation of Henry James' novel, "Washington Square" that comes so close to getting it right.
This tragedy of manners concerns the unfortunate Catherine Sloper, heiress to a respectable fortune and one on whom the graces have not smiled. Her mother died giving her birth and her father never forgave her. Little surprise that she becomes an awkward child and even more awkward adult under his ever-disapproving eye. Yet, this odd, good-natured woman has cheerfully accepted her non-place in the scheme of things. She might look on partygoers from a distance with an expression of wistful longing, but she would rather die than join in. Ripe pickings for the first man to show her any attention, which is just what happens, causing changes in everyone's lives that lead none of them to happiness in the strict sense of the word.
As Catherine, Jennifer Jason Leigh ultimately fails. She's ideal for the first two-thirds of the film, as a sweet mouse, but when Catherine's struck as if by a thunderbolt by the full realization of her father's contempt for her, Leigh conveys Catherine's new-found, white-hot hatred by being sulky and somnambulant. It doesn't work. Ben Chaplin's Morris Townsend, though, the penniless object of Catherine's affection, is nothing so much as Montgomery Clift come back from the dead. And not just because this was Clift's part way back when. He evokes, without mimicking, Monty's look, style or charisma. He makes up for Ms. Leigh's misstep.
"Washington Square" soars in scenes such as the one where Morris explains Catherine's motives to her father in a room festooned with pictures and models of dissected women. The irony is delicious. But even as it's more faithful to the book than 1949's "The Heiress," it's also less successful in rendering James' finely-wrought emotional punch. There's nothing to match that earlier Catherine's long march up the stairs. There's no rule, though, that says you can't see both.
© 1997 • Andrea Chase • Air Date: 10/08/97
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