Washington Square

on October 05, 1997 by Kim Williamson
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   Agnieszka Holland's films ("Europa, Europa," "The Secret Garden") typically tell a story in which she attempts to make beauty of gloom, but in the end it's a failing fight of light against darkness. This time out, Holland--aided by debut scripter Carol Doyle--adapts the novella by Henry James previously reworked by William Wyler in 1949's "The Heiress."
   Though the new version is unlikely to bring actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (who again mistakes tics for depth) the Oscar that the Wyler film brought Olivia de Havilland, the story of Catherine Sloper- -whose birth cost her mother her life, marking her unforgivably in the eyes of her wealthy father (Albert Finney)--seems tailor-made for Holland. From the first scene, she has a lock on her theme: the mother dead on a bloody bed, the father refusing to hold the child, the infant in her crib with an incredible expression on her tiny face--a melding of lostness, devastation and dread--that virtually tells the movie in an instant. The rest is details.
   Those details include Catherine's growth into a woman desperately devoted to her unyieldingly disappointed father; her affection for a poor man ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs'" Ben Chaplin) who insists he wishes to marry her for herself and not her father's money, and which as the film's major subplot functions sufficiently but not artfully; and a sympathetic aunt (Maggie Smith) who tries to soften her brother's crusty heart to the girl and the match. Yet, well through the movie, when her father says to Catherine, "How obscene--that your mother should give her life so you can inhabit space on this earth," the film shows it's not moved past the point captured with the infant in the crib. Yet, having cut to the bone of one daughter/father relationship, "Washington Square" is a movie that makes a virtue of the reflexive property.    Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith. Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Written by Carol Doyle. Produced by Roger Birnbaum and Julie Bergman Sender. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated PG for thematic elements including some sensuality, a childbirth scene and brief mild language. Running time: 115 min. Screened at Toronto.
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