See our Best of Detroit 2020 winners.

Wednesday, October 22, 1997

Washington Square

Posted By on Wed, Oct 22, 1997 at 12:00 AM

Of Henry James' troubled heiresses, Catherine Sloper in Washington Square (1880) is in some ways the most pitiable. James uses his carefully measured, beautiful language not so much to describe Catherine as to catalog her seemingly endless shortcomings.

He appears to share the opinion of her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, an eminent surgeon whose beloved (and wealthy) wife died in childbirth. This devastating event left him with Catherine, whom he has always regarded as less than satisfying compensation.

When Catherine nears the age of spinsterhood, the beautiful, gracious, cultured (but quite poor) Morris Townsend becomes her persistent suitor. Catherine's meddlesome, widowed Aunt Lavinia encourages and aids the courtship, but Dr. Sloper immediately pegs Morris as a fortune hunter and puts up a roadblock to marriage. Catherine is pitted between the two men she loves dearly, not realizing that each has his own ruthless agenda.

Playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz loosely adapted Washington Square in their 1947 Broadway hit, The Heiress, and later wrote the screenplay for William Wyler's superb 1949 film version. The Heiress emphasizes the manipulation of a hapless female by two competitive men, whereas Washington Square -- from director Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden) and screenwriter Carol Doyle -- focuses on a woman who slowly, painfully, comes into her own.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is a fluttery Catherine, clumsy and easily flustered, whose debilitating shyness comes from the belief that she's basically unlovable. That she is willing to purchase affection comes as little surprise. Her distant, manipulative father (Albert Finney) views her with barely concealed contempt, while her aunt (Maggie Smith) treats Catherine's courtship as if it were her own.

But Ben Chaplin's Morris is the most welcome surprise here. An expert charmer, he's nonetheless caught off-guard by the intensity of Catherine's ardor, which lends their scenes together an unexpectedly touching, swooning romanticism.

While sticking close to James' story, Washington Square has been given a decidedly feminist spin by the filmmakers, who transform Catherine Sloper from a victim into a progressive woman. This cinematic revisionism might not have pleased James, but is welcome nonetheless.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

Tags:

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at letters@metrotimes.com.

Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 28, 2020

View more issues

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In Detroit