|WASHINGTON SQUARE (1997)|
Jennifer Jason Leigh
|"We were all young and beautiful once. It's transient, and then it's gone."|
|Time: 115 mins.|
I have to say with a cast like this I am deeply disappointed with the way this film turned out and glad that I didn't have to pay to see it. I don't know what possessed them to make this story. I know it's Henry James and that period pieces are very popular, but this is not a happy nor interesting story, classic literature or not. In fact, it's a sad story about a character, though sympathetic, who is more pathetic than likeable. This may be more true to the spirit of the time than some of the other films from the last few years, but that doesn't mean we want to watch it. We want undying love that triumphs over all, not marriage for money and heartbreak. At the very least, if it doesn't end well, give us a heroine we can root for.
WASHINGTON SQUARE is the story of Catherine Sloper (Leigh), a simple woman whose world revolves around her father, since her mother died giving birth to her. She's not pretty, smart or charming, though she is wealthy. Her father (Finney) believes he has done his best by her, but secretly loathes her existence, blaming her for taking his beloved wife from him, leaving him a useless daughter. Catherine tries very hard to please him, but she is incapable of matching his expectations. Lucky for her, she is unaware of her father's feelings.
The one thing Austin Sloper doesn't have to worry about is her obedience. That is until she meets the handsome, charming and penniless Morris Townsend (Chaplin). Catherine has never received positive attention from any man, never mind one as good-looking as Morris. She falls instantly in love and so does he, at least that's what he tells her. Her Aunt Lavinia (Smith), never having married herself, is determined that they be married and does everything in her limited power to make the match a success. However, even though her father likes Morris, he still forbids her to see him. He knows Morris is only after Catherine's money, no matter how much the young man proclaims differently. Catherine isn't the sort of woman to make any man fall in love with her, especially one like Morris.
This is the fatal flaw of the film. As much as you don't want to agree with her bastard father, he's right. Catherine is just boring, plain and clingy. No man would voluntarily tie himself to her unless he had something to gain. If she was in the least bit likeable, you could believe that Morris really did love her and that the coming months of suffering were all worth something. But it's pretty obvious from the beginning that there will not be a happy ending for Catherine. If she was even a moderately decent heroine she would have defied her father and married Morris anyway. Of course, then she wouldn't have been Catherine.
In the end Catherine discovers that not only does her father despise her, but so does Morris. The only thing the men, who proclaimed to love her, actually want is her money - her father to keep his fortune and his pride in not losing it to an obvious charlatan and Morris to take it and solidify a place for himself in high society. The discovery of these horrible truths destroy Catherine's self-worth and force her to live her life alone. With her income from her mother's estate, she lives quite comfortably her father cut her out of his will when she refused to promise that she would not marry Morris and one hopes that she will finally find love. But that's not meant to be, for Morris does come calling and she refuses his plea of friendship. He destroyed her life, she will not give him the peace of forgiveness.
This is a dark and sad film, that gives you glimpses of hope, but squashes them like a bug soon after. Jennifer Jason Leigh really gives her all as Catherine, but this is just not a character anybody wants to spend time with. It's a shame she wasted her talents on someone like Catherine, a character nobody likes, especially the audience. Albert Finney and Ben Chaplin give equally passionate performances, but they're not enough to elevate the level of this story. Though this may be a tale that needed to be told, it's not one that needs to be watched.