Of Henry James' troubled heiresses, Catherine Sloper in Washington Square (1880) is in some ways the most pitiable. James uses his carefully measured, beautiful language not so much to describe Catherine as to catalog her seemingly endless shortcomings.
He appears to share the opinion of her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, an eminent surgeon whose beloved (and wealthy) wife died in childbirth. This devastating event left him with Catherine, whom he has always regarded as less than satisfying compensation.
When Catherine nears the age of spinsterhood, the beautiful, gracious, cultured (but quite poor) Morris Townsend becomes her persistent suitor. Catherine's meddlesome, widowed Aunt Lavinia encourages and aids the courtship, but Dr. Sloper immediately pegs Morris as a fortune hunter and puts up a roadblock to marriage. Catherine is pitted between the two men she loves dearly, not realizing that each has his own ruthless agenda.
Playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz loosely adapted Washington Square in their 1947 Broadway hit, The Heiress, and later wrote the screenplay for William Wyler's superb 1949 film version. The Heiress emphasizes the manipulation of a hapless female by two competitive men, whereas Washington Square -- from director Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden) and screenwriter Carol Doyle -- focuses on a woman who slowly, painfully, comes into her own.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is a fluttery Catherine, clumsy and easily flustered, whose debilitating shyness comes from the belief that she's basically unlovable. That she is willing to purchase affection comes as little surprise. Her distant, manipulative father (Albert Finney) views her with barely concealed contempt, while her aunt (Maggie Smith) treats Catherine's courtship as if it were her own.
But Ben Chaplin's Morris is the most welcome surprise here. An expert charmer, he's nonetheless caught off-guard by the intensity of Catherine's ardor, which lends their scenes together an unexpectedly touching, swooning romanticism.
While sticking close to James' story, Washington Square has been given a decidedly feminist spin by the filmmakers, who transform Catherine Sloper from a victim into a progressive woman. This cinematic revisionism might not have pleased James, but is welcome nonetheless.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.