Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin, Maggie Smith, Judith Ivey, Arthur Laupus, Jennifer Garner, Robert Stanton, Betsy Brantley
Written by: Carol Doyle, based on a novel by Henry James
Directed by: Agnieszka Holland
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements including some sensuality, a childbirth scene and brief mild language
Running Time: 116
Date: 10/10/1997

Washington Square (1997)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Fortuitous Headache

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I had hoped that the raw, fearlessly sensual Jennifer Jason Leigh would have the power to pop the corsets of a traditional costume movie. But sadly, in the role of Catherine Sloper in Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square, she's supposed to be timid, passive, unsure. And it's a letdown. Adapted from Henry James's 1880 novel — and previously filmed by William Wyler as The Heiress (1949) — the material is pretty creaky and the movie fails (although it would be no easy task) to make it feel relevant. Basically Catherine has been raised by a gruff father Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), who disapproves of her since his wife died giving birth to her. When she meets handsome, bland Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin) at a party, she falls in love, but her father is convinced that Morris is only after her inheritance. So he does everything in his power to prevent the union, causing lots of pining and suffering and misery. And that's about it. Not even the usually twinkle-eyed Maggie Smith, here playing Catherine's aunt, can buoy the material. Holland's direction is not particularly inspired, and film often feels somewhat flat and soft. It had a few admirers in its day, notably Andrew Sarris, but not enough... the film earned no Oscar nominations and was a box office disappointment.

Kino Lorber released a Blu-ray edition in 2019, which includes a commentary track by Holland.

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