Picks and Pans Review: Washington Square

updated 10/06/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1997 01:00AM

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, Ben Chaplin, Judith Ivey

A young heiress, plain as oatmeal and with a personality that's equally bland, meets a handsome but impecunious young man at a party in New York City in the 1850s. He begins courting her. Although he has neither a job nor especially bright prospects, she soon returns his ardent declarations. Is he really smitten with her, or is he the fortune hunter her domineering physician father and everyone else suspect him to be?

This is the surefire plot that has kept readers turning the pages of Henry James's penetrating novella Washington Square since it was published in the early 1880s. It works again here. This latest film version of James's book (an earlier movie, The Heiress, with Olivia de Havilland, appeared in 1949) is, if not transcendent, at least more successful and blessedly shorter than last year's Jamesian excursion Portrait of a Lady. Unlike Portrait director Jane Campion, Washington Square director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) sticks close to her source material, concentrating on the main players and their nasty but oh-so-decorous machinations. As the heiress, Leigh is heartbreakingly good. You can practically see her straighten up as, in learning to think for herself, she gains a backbone. Finney is both scary and compelling as her interfering father, Smith is a flibbertigibbety delight as her widowed aunt, and Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) does what he can with the problematically ambiguous role of the suitor. (PG)

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