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Movie Review: Washington Square -- Who's a girl to choose -- a poor suitor or a suspicious father?

Washington Square

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Written by Carol Doyle

Based on the novel by Henry James

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin, Maggie Smith, and Judith Ivey

By Teresa Huang
Staff Reporter

Agnieszka Holland's adaptation of the Henry James classic novel Washington Square hits the screens this weekend with a dignified bang. Unlike the stiff-collared period movies that Hollywood usually produces, Washington Square is a touching yet dark film that breaks the typical period stereotypes and allows Jennifer Jason Leigh to shine in yet another outstanding role.

Washington Square revolves around Catherine Sloper, played by an adorably awkward Jennifer Jason Leigh (A Thousand Acres, Single White Female), who is the heiress to the incredible fortune of her overprotective father Dr. Austin Sloper, played by Albert Finney (The Browning Version, Annie). Together, they live in the wealthy Washington Square district of New York City in the 1840's with Catherine's widowed Aunt Lavinia, played with great style by Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Sister Act).

Catherine's mother died in childbirth, coloring the way Dr. Sloper sees his only daughter. Still, we see from the beginning that Catherine dotes on her father immensely. When the story begins, she is accustomed to running down the stairs to greet her father in the evening and running to fetch his slippers. Though she was raised among society's best, Catherine is childish and lacks any sense of style, grace, or etiquette. She tries to be a lady, yet she barely knows how.

While attending her first society ball as a young woman, she meets Morris Townsend, played by Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs), a charming, handsome, and penniless man who is equally entranced by Catherine as she is with him. She is intrigued by his flattery and grows to love him, but is scared by her father's poor opinion of him. Dr. Sloper is convinced Morris is out to get his inheritance and he refuses to accept an unemployed man as a legitimate suitor. For the first time in her life, Catherine finds herself torn between a man she loves and the man who raised her. Dr. Sloper is solid in his assessment of Morris's character, and though it appears that he is jealous of the young man's ability to make Catherine open up and relate to him like he never could as a father, we see eventually that his reasons are actually much simpler and much more shocking. The movie progresses from fluffy to serious to downright somber as Catherine makes decisions that will change her life, heart, and family forever.

Jennifer Jason Leigh proves her chameleon reputation again by turning out a wonderful performance as the emotionally torn heroine Catherine. She is shy and awkward as the "woman without guile," and grows beautifully into a woman weathered by broken hearts and dreams. Catherine is the colonial equivalent of a klutz, and the slapstick humor she brings to an otherwise stodgy period piece is refreshing and different.

Maggie Smith is also excellent as Catherine's meddling Aunt Lavinia, who constantly frets and scuffles around Catherine, fancying herself some sort of harmony maker. Lavinia is humorously superstitious, and while she means well, she meddles a bit too much, breaking Catherine's trust and unfortunately not producing the happy ending she would have liked.

Washington Square is set in the 19th century and the movie actually treats the period fairly, avoiding overused stereotypical symbols of the dichotomy between the rich and the poor. The Slopers are indeed rich, but the movie doesn't portray them as arrogant and oblivious, but rather as a family we might see in a contemporary movie, dealing with their problems in a real and honest manner. The movie doesn't set out to make a statement about class different in the 19th century as much as a statement about the delicate relationship between a father and his daughter and how money can cloud even the purest love.

Though the movie does start out being a bit predictable, it saves itself in the end. We know that the father will not approve of Morris because of his economic status and that Catherine will be upset at him for denying her happiness. The twist comes in when Catherine decides to try getting Morris after all, but on her father's terms, and the complexities in Catherine's character begin to emerge. She yearns to be swept away, wanting a fairy tale ending to her story, while Morris is grounded in reality and wants to prove himself in the face of her father's insults. In the long run, Catherine's relationship with her father is much more interesting and complicated than her relationship with Morris, and while she initially wants to escape from her father, she eventually understands the affect her father has had on her life and how she can turn it around.

Washington Square is a wonderful movie that's full of romance and emotion, but also deals with serious issues of loyalty, faith, and pain. The performances are bold and outstanding, and the story holds a timelessness that is sure to impress as well as entertain.