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SAME OLD SONG <br> 'WASHINGTON SQUARE' PLAYS A SADLY FAMILIAR TUNE

IF YOUR idea of the perfect film is two hours of Victorian correctness, heaving bosoms, distraught dowagers and disowned fortunes, then "Washington Square" is for you.

If not, you may want to see this anyway. It'll provide the perfect forum for you to ponder the smoking ruin of your own love life.

Why?

Simple.

This is a very depressing movie. It's not like a lot of dance sequences or bombs are going to interrupt your brooding. Plus, it's very dark most of the time, and if you read the Henry James novel from which it was adapted, you know the ending, thus giving you more time to examine why you can't love.

But what is chiefly depressing about it is this: It shows you nothing has changed a bit between men and women.

We have a young woman who loves purely, and discovers too late it is all built on a lie.

We have a young man who pursues her with rushing passion, and doesn't give a damn about the consequences.

And we have duplicity of such enormous proportions that it just about takes down an entire family. Real Family Court stuff.

(We also have a controlling, arrogant father whose ability to manipulate his daughter's psyche winds up rendering her half-mad, but that's another story entirely.)

For those who never had to slog through the James epic, Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a painfully timid creature who barely speaks and cannot even manage a waltz without bashing some poor suitor in the nose.

Her pompous physician father, Austin Sloper (Albert Finney), shuttles Catherine around to various dull parties in 19th century New York, all the while cursing the fates that left him a widow with an unmarriageable child.

At one of these interminable Victorian teas, dashing Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin) steps into Catherine's life and really begins giving this poor girl the rush.

Before you know it, there are proclamations of undying love and hot lips pressed to an inch of exposed, wee bosom. It's enough to make you want to scream at her in the theater: "Smack him with your fan, you ninny! He'll get into those bloomers and stop calling on you in a month, tops!"

But no.

Like centuries of women before her, and pretty much every one since, Catherine trips into romance the way she has literally tripped through most of her dances: shiny-eyed, hopeful, lost in a pre-coital fog of lust, and utterly forgetful of exactly who she is: a wallflower favored by neither beauty or brilliance, but destined to inherit a ton of loot once her daddy kicks.

Daddy never forgets this, however. And at every opportunity he reminds Catherine of her basic dullard nature and utter unsuitability for marriage, thus setting up a huge dilemma for this charmless waif.

Who is it who truly loves her? The man who is dashing beyond her wildest fantasies? Or the one who never passes up the chance to tell her she has the IQ of wheat?

Years pass while she muses on this. And we do mean years.

Eventually, one man emerges as a rat, while the other is shown to be a coolly duplicitous liar, and naturally, dippy here goes half-loony with the horror of it all.

However, the neat thing is that toward the end, while Catherine never stops being a horribly plain wallflower with the tendency toward mumbling behind her hand, she does grow a set -- pardon the expression -- enough to exact a chilling revenge that seems to leave her at peace.

Destined to do a lot of parlor needlework in coming years -- but at peace.

Comparatively, your own love life might not seem so bad. And for under $10 and two hours, where else can you get to that revelation? Exactly.

MOVIE
Washington Square
Rating: ** 1/2
Homely, lonely heiress falls for passionate, penniless suitor who doesn't meet her father's approval. Years of barely repressed angst follow. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ben Chaplin, Albert Finney and Maggie Smith. Based on the Henry James novel, directed by Agnieszka Holland. Rated PG, at the Amherst Theater.

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