Ethics & Public Policy Center

Washington Square

Published in EPPC Online on September 1, 1997



It would take too long to catalogue all the excellences of Agnieszka Holland’s adaptation of Henry James’s Washington Square, but chief among them must be the performances of the actors in the four principal roles. Albert Finney plays rich Dr. Sloper, Ben Chaplin plays the handsome bounder, Morris Townsend, who comes to court his plain and stupid daughter, and Maggie Smith plays Aunt Lavinia, the daughter’s terminally silly chaperon and companion and Dr. Sloper’s sister. In this tale of old New York, only the daughter, Catherine, is played by an American actress: the versatile if inconsistent Jennifer Jason Leigh. Miss Jason Leigh has a tendency to overact and also tends, I think, to seek out roles where overacting is required in films which are, consequently, not very good. But Miss Holland has managed to keep her under unusual restraint here and so she is able to hold her own with the veteran Brits.

The film works a little too hard at the beginning to establish the nature of the relationship between father and daughter in the latter’s childhood. But almost from the moment that Miss Jason Leigh first appears, our hearts are raked over and over again by her reactions to her father’s casual cruelties. Aunt Lavinia, for instance, warns her brother to be diplomatic about his daughter’s first ball gown. He replies that “If a prelude is necessary, it must be bad indeed.” It goes to show how little he knows his own impact on his daughter. When she appears in a garishly colored garment that looks as if it had been made from the draperies at Tara, he says with exaggerated gallantry: “So this magnificent creature is my child!”

“I will change,” she says instantly.

It is typical of the very intelligent Dr. Sloper that he never quite manages to see that his daughter’s supposedly feeble intelligence nevertheless understands all too well his cruel ironies, in spite of his certainty that she cannot. For the same reason, he is never able to see that, although he is right about Townsend, he is unpardonably wrong in the use to which he puts his knowledge.

In Hollywood’s view of the world, patriarchs who sexually abuse their daughters are as common as blackberries. There was also in the movies’ earlier attempt at adapting the novel, The Heiress of 1949, more than a hint of the sort of popular Freudianism which depicts “repression” as the source of neurosis, cruelty and more repressions. But as it comes from Albert Finney’s not altogether unsympathetic Dr. Sloper, this kind of abuse, born of disappointment and worldly wisdom, strikes us as much more typical of the things as they are — and thus much more affecting. So when Catherine meets Townsend and Aunt Lavinia pretends that the young men are all seeking her, he gallantly offers: “I don’t want to earn the enmity of every man here.”

“Please don’t mock me, Mr. Townsend,” she says quickly, assuming that he is exactly like her father.

Of course, he is not. He genuinely admires her ingenuousness. “A woman without guile. What a rarity!” One of the best things about the film is its effectiveness in showing us the sincerity of Townsend’s feelings for her, especially in explaining them to her unbudging father, without in any way mitigating his weaknesses or taking away from Dr Sloper’s accurate diagnosis of his intentions. It even begins to make sense when, at the most critical moment of her life, Townsend says to her: “Would you want me without my attributes? You had money, I had this,” he says pointing to himself. “It was a fair exchange.” So it would have been a fair exchange too, if the exchange had been offered. But it was not offered. Instead, much against his will, Townsend is offered the opportunity to behave honorably and shows himself incapable of doing so.

Unlike Olivia De Havilland in The Heiress, this Catherine ends looking more clever and good and even beautiful than anyone ever knew that she could be. She has made us see her suffering throughout the drawn-out process of her sweet and loving nature’s being impressed with the realization that both the men she cares most about in the world regard her with contempt. But she also makes us see that she has profited by her suffering. Seldom can there have been so obvious an opportunity for feminist lessons to be drawn, but instead they are merely human ones. And as inspiring to me as the image of Catherine’s moral beauty is the thought that there are some corners of the movie-making world where ideology still has not penetrated.

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