Directed By: Agnieszka Holland
Screenplay By: Carol Doyle
Based on the novel by Henry James
Produced By: Roger Birnbaum
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Ben Chaplin, Jennifer Garner
MPAA Rating: PG
Runtime: 115 minutes
Review Date: July 30, 2010
It’s hard not to feel sorry for Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh). After all, her mother died giving birth to her, leaving her with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), who only seems to have interest in the girl when chastising or pointing out her character flaws. She rarely leaves her house, making her seem like a Rapunzel waiting for her Prince Charming to come and rescue her.
Dr. Sloper’s sister, Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Maggie Smith), becomes the sole caregiver for Catherine while Dr. Sloper attends to his patients. Having been widowed and childless herself, she latches onto Catherine ensuring Catherine not only lives up to the stereotype of an only child, but also provides great insight to what happens when one becomes a helicopter parent.
Apart from lacking social skills, Catherine appears extremely naïve for her age, as well as painfully plain. Her only claim to fame seems to be her family royalties. Her only social interactions stem from family gatherings, where her cousin Marian (Jennifer Garner) decides to introduce her to Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin).From the get go, Townsend swears he’s only out for her love and not her family’s money. It’s important to note Townsend comes from quite a poor background, so naturally, those close to Catherine immediately begin to question his motives.
It is at this time, Dr. Sloper finally takes an interest in Catherine and makes her embark on a half-year trip to Europe. He tells her it’s because this will give them a chance to bond and really work at the relationship Catherine has always wanted. But anyone can see his motives are nowhere near this.
Leigh does a fantastic portrayal of Catherine Sloper throughout the whole film. She leaves you feeling just as vulnerable as her character while you cheer her on, become empathetic but eventually just grow tired of her antics. Whatever the emotion, there’s something there that just draws you to Catherine (much like what Townsend must have felt upon meeting her).
The film is not about love, family or relationships. It’s about finding yourself through your interactions with other people. Washington Square focuses on the growth of Catherine from child to adult (one that doesn’t take place until much later in her life). Just like Catherine, viewers will recall moments in their life when things finally clicked, and the clarity finally shined through.
This message seems to be meddled with throughout the film and not really made clear until the very end. While everyone around Catherine marries, produces babies, and goes on about their lives, she continually finds friction and doubt wherever she roams. It is only after standing up for herself that she truly realizes no relationship or monetary item matters.
Another fun character to watch throughout the film is Aunt Lavinia. She clearly has Catherine’s best interest at heart when meddling, but naturally, Catherine doesn’t see it this way. The verbal brawl between the two was a favorite scene, allowing Maggie Smith to really bring the fire she traditionally brings to all of her roles.
In the end, Washington Square attempts to be a period piece defined by the tropes of a traditional period piece film (like any Jane Austen-esque film). The potential is there for the film, with a fantastic ensemble and interesting characters. The middle of the script just seems redundant and overdone, leaving the viewer tired instead of intrigued. Naturally, it just leaves you feeling even sorrier for the fact that this is Catherine Sloper’s world.
Hanna Soltys is a green tea drinker and film critic living in Chicago.