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on January 30, 2007
Honestly, this was one of my favorite films until I read the book, and it brought to light two things that I think the director really messed up on.
1. Catherine Sloper was nowhere near as socially retarded in the book as she was in the movie. In fact, as someone said, in the movie they practically portray her as being borderline mentally challenged. In the books her faults were not as exaggerated, and consisted of her plain looks, dull personality and occasional lack of a witty retort (which happens to all of us save for those annoying few who always have the perfect thing to say). Otherwise I would characterize her, especially in comparison to her flighty aunt and cold-hearted dad, as the only normal one in the house. While everyone else was making the situation with Morris more of a drama than it needed to be, Catherine was taking things as they came and letting them go as they went. She grows from naive girl who adored her callous father to a secure woman.
Also, while in the movie they portrayed her dress sense as evidence of her social ineptitude (the scene where she goes to the party where she meets Morris in that awful fringed thing), in the book it is an admirable eccentricity, and proves that she is not as boring as she seems.
2. While Albert Finney does a great job of capturing Dr. Sloper's callous sarcasm, he doesn't (and again, I think this is the director's fault) really capture the type of psychological game he is playing with his daughter. In the book, Dr. Sloper detachedly views the goings on between his daughter and Morris as a kind of entertainment, a play that he wants to see if he guessed the correct ending to. In return, as Catherine realizes what as asshat her father is (can I say that here?), she begins to play the game with him, telling him when he is near his deathbed that she can't promise she won't marry Morris after he dies (This scene also takes place in the movie, but the way it is acted out you get the sense that Catherine is saying this because she hasn't let Morris go yet - the director hasn't developed the character enough to make the viewer believe she has the intelligence to play her dad's own game).
In terms of praise, the performances by Maggie Smith, Albert Finney and Ben Chaplin are great. To quote another review again, Ben Chaplin really has you wondering what exactly are his character motives (even though deep down you know he wants her money, like the naive Catherine, you continue to want to believe everyone is wrong). I admit I picked up the book in the first place because I wanted to get a better handle on Morris and his intentions! Also, the soundtrack is just gorgeous.
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on October 18, 1999
As a great fan of Henry James, I much preferred this new film version of his story, rather than "The Heiress," whether that film is considered a classic or not. Other critics on this page have panned the new version, writing that it lacks subtlety, but what is so subtle about Morris bashing on the Slopers' front door and yelling at the top of his lungs, which is what happens in "The Heiress"--and certainly does NOT happen in the novel. For me, Jennifer Jason Leigh more closely captured the clumsiness, social awkwardness, and sensitivity of the novel's main character, more so than Olivia de Havilland's woman of steel out for revenge. The cast of the older film are all fine actors, but the screenplay was the clumsy one there. The cast of the newer Washington Square are all pitch-perfect, as if they had lifted their characters directly from the novel. Maggie Smith is truly amazing in her comic role as the aunt.
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on April 7, 2001
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as Catherine Sloper,a clumsy,shy and innocent only daughter of Doctor Sloper(Albert Finney). Her mother died at her birth and her father doesn't seem to like Catherine much. Morris Townsend(Ben Chaplin)falls in love with her but he's not rich and her father starts to believe that Morris just wants to marry Catherine for her money. If she marries Morris her father will disinherit her. What will Catherine do?
The performances of Jennifer Jason Leigh and the handsome Ben Chaplin are fine. So is Albert Finney role as the strict father. The music of the movie is beautiful.
Though the ending was not what I expected,(I actually felt disappointed)I actually can say that I liked the movie(after I watched for the second time). If you like period movies, like me, you should take a look at Washington Square.
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on December 26, 2002
I waited for the Japanese release of this Henry James adaptation of "Washinton Square", but after 5 years I see no news of it. Now I bought a video of the film, to find the reason why this was neglected in our Japanese market. Well, though I still don't know why, I think I can somehow understand the distributors' unwillingness to release this one.
Because the film is a mixed bag. Not that "Washington Square" is a bad film. On the contrary, I would rather like to praise it, but with some reservation. First, remember, the story, based on one of James's earlier works of the same title, is a tragic one. Jennifer Jason Leigh is Catherine Sloper, whose father (Albert Finney) is a respected doctor in New York City of the early 19th century. Though Catherine is a good girl (morally, I mean), she is never praised as a beautiful girl, and she knows it, too. Though her father Dr. Sloper is not cold-hearted, he is emotionally detached from his only daughter while she is desperately seeks for his approval. Thus their life goes on at Washington Square in New York City.
Until a handsome man meets Catherine at a tea party, where he advances to her with a golden smile and skilled conversation. He is Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin, "Lost Souls"), who, it seems, lived a wild life in the past, but now, he says, is back as reformed. Catherine falls in love for the first time in her life, and he says he is willing to marry her, but her father suspects that this young handsome guy is just a cad, good for nothing and after the money which she is to inherit after his death. But is he (doctor) really right in sternly rejecting him and his daughter's wish?
The story is melodramatic, but that is not the point. Director Holland allows the actors to be characters they play, so that they realize the complicated relations which are subtlely described in the original book. Certainly it is slow-moving, but if you pay attention not to the plot, but to the emotional changes happening in these people, you will enjoy the film. After all, James is not famous for gripping storytelling; it is his characters and the relations between them that we care, and the film deserves our praise very much for the reason that it brought them to very real thing on screen.
But the praise is not unconditional, for there are some questionable decisions made in the film. Holland rendered the piano recital scene a very embarrassing one (like "The Exocist"), but that is totally unnecesary (and the original book does not have Catherine humiliated that way). Casting is also strange. Jason Leigh, herself very good, is, I am afraid, a bit miscast because Catherine should be, I thought, a little younger. Ben Chaplin and Albert Finney are good, but Maggie Smith's meddlesome Mrs. Penniman, who gives some comic (but slightly cruelly depicted) taste, looks uncomfortable. Probably that is because we see her playing more serious, no-nonsense characters, as she did in "Secret Garden" "Gosford Park" and others.
Though this is not as good as William Wyler's "The Heiress", director Holland made a splendid job here. Some of the camera work is also superb (see the sweeping movement of the opening scene), but sometimes her direction goes too far, as I pointed out. But as a whole, a very good costume drama.
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on May 8, 2014
If you were thinking this version might be similar to The Heiress (1949) think again.
I was not particularly interested in seeing the blood soaked sheets of a woman that just gave birth, or the urine streaming down
from a little girl embarrassed to perform in public. And then Morris meets Aunt Penniman in a sordid part of town where prostitutes meet customers behind torn muslin and while Morris and Livina are conversing, you hear the grunts and moaning in the background.
Jennifer Jason Leigh's portrayal of Catherine Sloper left me wondering what (if any) direction she received during the course of filming. When she and Morris are initially introduced at the party to announce her cousin's engagement, she trips and nearly falls several times....it was way over the top. She acted more like a stroke victim than a shy, introverted girl with no self confidence.
I thought Ben Chaplin (Morris) was about the only character that was believable of all the cast.
Albert Finney is certainly a fine actor, but he plays Dr. Sloper more as the "mean" father than a disappointed parent.
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on May 19, 2013
This is a compelling story about a wealthy physician who resides in New York. He loses his wife and son to birth complications. He has a daughter Catherine who is plain but sweet daughter. A young dashing fellow takes a deep interest in her, he treats her like she is the most beautiful woman he has ever met. Her father thinks he is a gold digger and goes to great lengths to protect her, she on the other hand is convinced its true love......who is right? The movie is well made, the characters have depth and the plot is well developed. This great novel has been compared to Jane Austen's works, which is all well and good....unfortunately Agnieszka Holland, the director, never fails to find a way to ruin a good thing. She tries a little too hard "Austen-ize" the story. She edits all signs of New York from the story, It took me a while to realize that the story takes place in New York and not some English Lord's estate in the British countryside. I found the faux British accents and mannerisms very distracting......the accent is a cross between American actors with a bad British accent and British actors with bad American accents......Was it really sanitize all things American from this movie? Washington Square had so much potential....sigh....i suppose i will always have the book.
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on November 14, 2000
A young heiress, plain as oatmeal and with a personality that's equally bland, meets a handsome but impecunious young man at a party in New York City in the 1850s. He begins courting her. Although he has neither a job nor especially bright prospects, she soon returns his ardent declarations. Is he really smitten with her, or is he the fortune hunter her domineering physician father and everyone else suspect him to be?
This is the surefire plot that has kept readers turning the pages of Henry James's penetrating novella Washington Square since it was published in the early 1880s. It works again here.
This latest film version of James's book (an earlier movie, The Heiress, with Olivia de Havilland, appeared in 1949) is, if not transcendent, at least more successful and blessedly shorter than the Jamesian excursion Portrait of a Lady. Unlike Portrait director Jane Campion, Washington Square director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) sticks close to her source material, concentrating on the main players and their nasty but oh-so-decorous machinations.
As the heiress, Leigh is heartbreakingly good. You can practically see her straighten up as, in learning to think for herself, she gains a backbone. Finney is both scary and compelling as her interfering father, Smith is a flibbertigibbety delight as her widowed aunt, and Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) does what he can with the problematically ambiguous role of the suitor.
Amazing adaptation with brilliance and verve.
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VINE VOICEon March 15, 2013
"Washington Square," (1997), is a dramatic romance of a film, based on Henry James' tragicomic first novel, of that name,Washington Square, which was published in 1880 by the highly regarded, American author. WASHINGTON SQUARE has proven itself to be one of James' more popular novels, remaining in print for more than a century, until today. This film was directed by the Polish Agnieszka Holland, and starred Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female, as Catherine Sloper, Albert Finney,(Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), as her father, Dr. Sloper,, and Ben Chaplin,(Two Weeks), as Morris Townsend. With Maggie Smith,(Downton Abbey: Episode 1 [HD]), as Mrs. Lavinia Penniman, the Doctor's sister. Veteran theatrical star Judith Ivey, The Addams Family), appears as Mrs. Almond, the doctor's other sister; a young Jennifer Garner,(Ghosts of Girlfriends Past), appears as Marian Almond, Mrs. Almond's eldest daughter who does everything right by Victorian standards, including making an appropriate, "punctual" marriage.

Dr. Austin Sloper, a rich respected physician, lives in Washington Square, New York, with his only surviving child, Catherine. She is a sweet-natured young woman who greatly disappointments her brilliant domineering father; he thinks her physically plain and dull of personality and intellect. Mind you, Sloper's beloved, beautiful and vivacious wife had died a week after giving birth to Catherine, so it seems obvious that the doctor also holds her mother's death against the young woman. (The Doctor's three-year-old son had died two years earlier.) Sloper's widowed sister, Lavinia, a foolish woman, is the only other member of the household.

Catherine meets the tall, handsome and charming Morris Townsend at Mrs. Almond's party celebrating her daughter Marian's engagement; she is strongly attracted to him. Morris instantly proceeds to court Catherine; he is aided in this enterprise by Mrs. Penniman, who craves drama. Dr. Sloper strongly disapproves of the courtship, as he believes Morris to be a fortune-hunter. Thus, when the young couple announces their engagement, the doctor looks into Morris's background. He visits Mrs. Montgomery, the young man's sister. Sloper thereby learns that Townsend, who has run through his small inheritance wandering Europe, has been a parasitic spendthrift to his poor widowed sister and her five children. So the doctor forbids his daughter to marry Townsend, whom he considers to be a 'selfish idler.' Poor Catherine cannot decide between the loyalty she feels she owes her father, and the devotion she feels for her fiancé.

Dr. Sloper understands Catherine's predicament and even pities her. But he tells her that he will disinherit her if she marries Morris; then takes her on a far-ranging year's tour of Europe to help her forget her young suitor. During this time, he mentions Catherine's engagement only twice: once while they are alone in the Alps, and again on the eve of their return. On both occasions, Catherine holds firm in her determination to marry. After her second refusal to give up her projected marriage, Sloper angrily compares her to a sheep fattened for slaughter. He has finally gone too far: Catherine sees his contempt, withdraws from him, readies herself to give her love to Morris.

Jennifer Jason Leigh does all right as Catherine, though I've never been a big fan of her super-intense style. Ben Chaplin does better than you might expect; he's no Montgomery Clift,(who played the part in the 1949 movie) but he does manage to infuse his fortune-hunter with a certain sense of vulnerability, as did Clift. (Though Clift, of course, did it better.) Albert Finney does well as the doctor. Smith, in her role as Lavinia, is that silly woman to the life. Ivey and Garner are fine in their supporting parts.

While this film takes some liberties with the original text, it hews more closely to the book than did the much more popular and better-known film The Heiress (Universal Cinema Classics), directed by William Wyler, released in 1949. That earlier film memorably starred Olivia De Havilland (an Oscar winner for this), Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins. It was based upon the stage play of the same name, by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, which adapted the novel. That play was originally performed on Broadway in 1947 with Wendy Hiller as Catherine and Basil Rathbone as Dr. Sloper. (It was most recently revived in 2012. And I managed to see it, starring Jessica Chastain, Dan Stevens, Judith Ivey, and David Strathairn. What a cast, what a treat! And hasn't Judith Ivey made a specialty of this entertainment!) Both the earlier play and movie stuck closely to the novel and took many of the best lines directly from James' dialogue. However, the Goetz version does make a few changes to the story and to the character of Catherine, making her eventually sly enough to plan revenge on Morris, abruptly sending him off. The Goetz version also had Catherine, in fact, receiving her full inheritance, which makes her revenge on Morris even sweeter. And it introduced the two great dramatic bookends of the story, Morris's jilting of Catherine on the way to the altar, and her revenge: neither of these two riveting set pieces is used in the later film.

Nor was I pleased with some of the liberties taken by this later film. It introduces two vulgar scenes, found nowhere in James' novel, or anywhere in that sensitive man's work. It also introduces a scene of the older spinster Catherine apparently running a day care center in her luxurious Washington Square home. Now, critics agree that any work of literature or art that lasts more than a century must allow succeeding generations to read it their way, and this is certainly true of WASHINGTON SQUARE. The script of this movie tries to present Catherine an early feminist, and, although James certainly didn't see her this way, the material does allow it. But running a day care center in her home? The novel was published and set in 1880. Jane Addams, the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was a pioneer social worker and founder of Chicago's Hull House. She was born only in 1860. So she would have been 20 in 1880, and hardly have had time even to found Hull House, let alone invent daycare centers.

Well, I missed the two great dramatic scenes--the sequential mutual jiltings-- from THE HEIRESS, and had negative reactions to the additions made to this script. Can't recommend this film: if you ask me, it deserved to flop. It did.
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Perhaps one of the most exasperating romances of all time and yet the subtle message throughout are delightfully entertaining. You are left to make up your own mind as to the true intentions of the characters.

This is the passionate story of a young heiress who is destined to choose between love and wealth. Her father (Albert Finney) disapproves of the man she loves and feels that if she marries a man who cannot take care of her, her mother died in childbirth in vain.

Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin) is a handsome yet impecunious young man who sweeps her off her feet and shows her a world she longs to live in. Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is na've and shy and when she falls for Morris so fast, we can only assume she is consumed by his words, the stories he tells her and how he makes her laugh and feel about herself. She almost faints in his presence, so strong is the effect he has on her. He knows what a woman wants to hear.

"I never imagined I'd be taken like this...I heard tales of this, this thing. But I suspected it was an idea originated by mercenary novelists. Now I find myself, I find myself performing the most useless tasks in the hope that I'll find a moments respite from thinking of you. I'm quite overcome." -Morris Townsend

Morris is determined to play the game of love and he wants to find the key that will
unlock the gate to Catherine's heart. Once he finds the key, he uses it to his advantage, all the while also wanting to find the key to her father's soul. When he fails to find a way to gain her father's approval, he starts to act irrationally and shallow.

Catherine's aunt seems to be living out her own fantasy of forbidden love and while she thinks she is working a magic love spell with the best of her intentions, she has in fact helped to concoct a strange and cruel curse.

When Morris shuts the door on Catherine's fantasy by saying he wanted her, but wanted her with her money, it is too cruel a fate. Did he mean what he said? Was he only mocking her controlling father who was impervious to pity.

Passionate with a powerful message of how strong women can be when looking into the eyes of a cruel fate. This is about a woman who gains confidence and some sense of satisfaction, yet loses what she wanted most, love.

~The Rebecca Review
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on June 17, 2009
I saw this movie about five years ago and liked it, but was a bit disappointed in the ending. I'm a big fan of movies based on books by Jane Austen, so I'm used to everything working out in the end. Recently I viewed "Washington Square" a second time and found it extremely compelling and thought provoking (as well as being entertaining). Catherine and Morris are complex characters and you never really know exactly what they are thinking or what their motivations truly are. I think Morris wanted Catherine's money, but I'm not convinced that he was simply a fortune hunter. I think he felt like he and Catherine could make each other reasonably happy and he wouldn't have to toil for his living, which he seemed to think was beneath him. After the trip abroad, why did Catherine refuse to ask her father again for his consent as Morris obviously wanted her to? She was willing to risk losing Morris in order not to beg of her father. Perhaps she knew it was pointless, but it seemed to me that she just flat out refused to even try. When Morris says "Yes, I wanted you and I wanted your money, is that so horrible?", I found myself sympathizing with him--was it so horrible to want both? After all, he doesn't say "I never wanted you, I only wanted the money." At one point the married aunt says something to the father along the lines of "you've worked all your life for your fortune, can you not give it to Catherine and allow her to have it in a happy state." But the father isn't willing to do that--I don't think simply because he views Morris as a fortune hunter, but also because he harbors deep resentment and refuses to see Catherine happy when he was denied happiness due to his wife dying in childbirth. It's wonderful to watch a movie where the main character evolves and that happens with Catherine in this film. She is a much changed person in a span of eight to ten years. Another viewer may read this review and feel very differently about the happenings of the story. That is what is so compelling about this film--it forces you to think and it certainly makes you feel.
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