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Film: 100 years ago today

Movies | In the 19th-century vogue, Henry James is no Jane Austen

Issue: "The persecuted church," Nov. 1, 1997

Movies that recreate the 19th century, such as Sense and Sensibility and the Merchant & Ivory franchise, have a strong appeal today. The honorable characters, formal manners, and elevated language point out aspects of a bygone era that are missing today. Washington Square is Disney's attempt to cash in on the current popularity of costume melodrama. But this movie forgets the secret to the genre's appeal.

Washington Square, based on the classic American novelist Henry James's book about 1850s New York, tells the story of the ill-fated romance of Catherine, a plain, lonely heiress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Morris (Ben Chaplin), a handsome, intelligent pauper. Albert Finney is the father who stands between the two. The rich doctor terrifies his daughter from childhood and accuses the young man of only loving her for her money. He treats her harshly and drags her off to Europe for a year to make her forget her beau. Who will Catherine choose: her father or her suitor?

The film's faithfulness to Mr. James pays off with wonderfully artful dialogue and great characters. Washington Square is smartly scripted and has a few terrific scenes. Unfortunately, Agnieszka Holland's confused direction is no substitute for Henry James's narrative.

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As Washington Square spirals toward an unhappy ending, it becomes more and more depressing. Eventually, our heroine loses both of the men in her life. Morris mutates into a fortune hunter and Catherine is devastated. She winds up an old maid. Daddy still belittles her and keeps a cold shoulder to the end.

Nobody ends up happy. Disney miscalculated in sending Mr. James's work after the audience that fell for Jane Austen. Mr. James was far darker, anticipating the psychological malaise of the 20th century. Ms. Austen's world is one of love, order, and closeness, not angst and breakdown. Austen-mania is about escaping from modernity, not diving toward it.

While the conclusion of Washington Square is faithful to the book, it is staged in an oddly feminist fashion. Catherine is made to be content to be left alone and unmarried; this seems to vindicate her cruel father in his cause. Most of the movie is thus rendered meaningless. Without the original author's subtlety, what remains is two hours about a woman's descent into spinsterhood, which is then presented as a good thing.

These costume dramas still speak strongly to our time. Their characters lead lives with clear direction and distinct social roles. They are unencumbered by such complexities as 1040 forms, car payments, and no-fault divorces. Now if only Disney would catch up with the 19th century.

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