Courtesy Photo
Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin & Maggie Smith

"Washington Square"

Opened: October 10, 1997 | Rated: PG-13

For Jennifer Jason Leigh, "Washington Square" is an opportunity to stretch her acting legs after several consecutive sardonic roles.

Catherine Sloper, Henry James' excitable and vulnerable, nervous and plain, 19th Century society girl is not a role I would have pictured her in.

The heroine of "Square," Catherine is a unsure girl whose self-doubt is re-enforced by her strict, lonely, wealthy father (Albert Finney), who sabotages what she considers her only chance for true love.

But far be it from me to under-estimate Leigh, and in "Square" she proves herself once again to be one of Hollywood's modern treasures.

Playing Catherine from her late teens to her early 30s, she's a bit too old for the teenage years but makes up for it with girlish enthusiasm and insecure titters, then proceeds to play her aging beautifully.

Surprisingly, she also looks quite at home in corsets and ringlet curls.

"Washington Square" is the story of Catherine's growth to self-acceptance through, during and after being courted by Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin, "The Truth About Cats & Dogs"), a penniless, handsome charmer that her father suspects of being a fortune hunter.

Her emotional struggle between loyalty and love shapes her life, as her father threatens to disown her and Morris hesitates to marry her only to live a pauper's life.

Although the cast, which also includes Maggie Smith as Catherine's devoted aunt, is impeccable, the script does little to make the characters compelling. This kind of story is far too familiar to be engaging on its own, and despite strong performances -- especially from Leigh and Finney -- the movie isn't meaty enough.

Directed by Agnieszka Holland ("Europa, Europa"), "Washington Square" has its moments, most of them provided by Leigh's stunning ability to lay emotions bare. It is visually absorbing (love those tracking shots), quite properly period and all around an admirable effort.

But it's the kind of movie mostly of interest to period drama aficionados, who will be glad to have seen it but won't recommend to their friends.

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