James’ Tenacious Heiress Enjoys a Quiet Triumph

Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square , from a screenplay by Carol Doyle, based on the novel by Henry James, should put the kibosh on the trend-spotters who assured us that James could never compete with Jane Austen as a source of grown-up film narratives. Washington Square is a splendid achievement, subtle yet forceful, ironic yet passionate, heartbreaking yet heroic. I have seen two theatrical productions and one previous movie based on Washington Square , each with the melodramatically pointed title of The Heiress , with the stalked prey Catherine Sloper played by the wondrous Wendy Hiller on the stage in 1947, the overpraised and over-Oscared Olivia de Havilland on the screen in 1949, and the Tony-winning and interestingly regal Cherry Jones on the stage in the 90’s.

I was a Columbia College undergraduate in the 40’s when I was electrified by Ms. Hiller’s shrieking cries of a wounded animal in the second act when she is stood up by Morris Townsend. The talk around the English department at Columbia at the time was that Ruth and Augustus Goetz had cheapened and vulgarized James in pursuit of a theatrical payoff at the final curtain with Morris banging and sobbing away at the locked door, and Catherine, having completed her embroidery for the last time, ascending the stairs triumphantly, with a luminous lamp leading her to a life of self-vindicating spinsterhood.

Ms. Holland and Ms. Doyle have not been entirely faithful to James, but they have restored much of the larger time frame encompassed in the novel, in contrast to the theatrical compression and foreshortening executed by the Goetzes with The Heiress. Indeed, Ms. Holland and Ms. Doyle go all the way back to the frightful day on which Catherine was born, and her beautiful and accomplished mother died in childbirth. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney) has only tears of grief for his dead wife, but no tears of joy for newborn Catherine, lying alone and neglected in her crib. A later scene of young Catherine being traumatized on a public occasion would have startled and shocked James, though he might have been impressed by Ms. Holland’s post-Holocaust audacity.

Washington Square the movie takes chances right and left, teetering between the farcical at one extreme and the maudlin at the other, but always righting itself by returning to James’ long-range ironies about the slowly evolving feelings of a shy, clumsy, plain, but stubborn and steadfast young woman with an ultimately impregnable armor of dignity, innocence and sincerity. She remains faithful unto death to the one great love of her life though it has proven to be false. She eventually savors the quiet triumph over her father for his despising her from childhood. She is quiet and matter-of-fact also in her final dismissal of Morris. This is the glory of Ms. Holland’s homage to James: Her Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh) never plays to the second balcony. She doesn’t have to. The final close-up of Ms. Leigh’s gently self-accepting smile takes us back beyond James, to D.W. Griffith and his intuitive discovery of the subjective close-up as the gateway to the inner life of a character.

Jamesian purists may rightly complain that Ms. Holland and Ms. Doyle have transformed Austin Sloper’s mildly patronizing scene with Morris Townsend’s impoverished sister, Mrs. Montgomery (Betsy Brantley), into outright class warfare that casts Sloper in a much harsher light than James ever intended. Indeed, the casting of Mr. Finney as Dr. Sloper and Ben Chaplin as the mercenary Morris may raise some eyebrows, for Mr. Finney seems too modern, and Mr. Chaplin seems too Mediterranean in the sea of WASP-dom. Both the actors confound the fears of miscasting by drawing something else and something more from their parts than did their effective Goetzian predecessors.

Mr. Finney’s Sloper piles Jamesian irony atop Jamesian irony by becoming ultimately the victim of his own self-deceiving deadpan wit. Mr. Chaplin is not as “beautiful” (to use Catherine’s blurted-out expression of love-sick awe) as Montgomery Clift was in William Wyler’s 1949 movie version, but he is emotionally juicier and better spoken than the excessively charismatic Clift. Mr. Chaplin’s Jamesian lines seem less the product of thought-out stratagems than of mercurial improvisations from a stormy, self-hating psyche.

Maggie Smith’s foolishly meddlesome Aunt Lavinia is very generously played as James so scathingly described her, and Judith Ivey’s marvelously lucid Mrs. Elizabeth Almond, Dr. Sloper’s sister, emerges as the only intelligent champion of Catherine’s interests. All in all, Washington Square (re-created for this production in Baltimore) brings Henry James to throbbing, pulsating life on the screen.

Pacemaker, er, Peacemaker

Arrives a Season Too Late

Mimi Leder’s The Peacemaker , from a screenplay by Michael Schiffer, based on an article by Leslie and Andrew Cockburn, combines the strained insouciance of the James Bond series and the manic energy of E.R. on television. And no wonder: Ms. Leder has directed George Clooney, the male star of The Peacemaker , in his small-screen role as the raffish pediatrician on E.R.

Whether or not Mr. Clooney turns out to be the next Tom Selleck in failing to make the jump from small-screen stardom to big-screen stardom, he clearly does not intend to become the next David Caruso. No siree, Mr. Clooney has wisely kept his night job, just in case movie audiences choose to give him the cold shoulder at the box office. With several big productions still in the Clooney pipeline, it is still too early to write him off, though I hear less and less buzz that he is the new Cary Grant. But then would the “old” Cary Grant in his prime have done any better in today’s first-week-or-bust marketplace? Michael Hoffman’s One Fine Day (1996) with Michelle Pfeiffer at her most luscious would have been a more than adequate launch pad for Mr. Clooney in more civilized decades past, but not in the nasty 90’s, when target audiences want bang, bang more than kiss, kiss. Joel Schumacher’s respectably grossing but widely denigrated Batman & Robin (1997), was hardly Mr. Clooney’s fault, but, as he conceded to David Letterman, he helped kill the franchise.

Mr. Clooney seems more comfortable in The Peacemaker than his co-star, Nicole Kidman, who has to keep a straight face in a hopeless part that keeps her in perpetual overdrive as she tries to predict, in her brainy way, where a Bosnian terrorist with a portable nuclear device intends to strike. The pursuit of the device and the terrorist takes Mr. Clooney’s Lieut. Col. Thomas Devoe of the U.S. Army Special Forces and Ms. Kidman’s Dr. Julia Kelly, acting head of the White House Nuclear Smuggling Group, from Washington to Vienna to Russia’s border with Iran, and finally to the United Nations’ neighborhood in Manhattan, a big chunk of which the terrorist plans to vaporize.

There are many problems with this superproduction, not the least of which is the frantic pace of Ms. Leder’s direction, which works better in a one-hour hospital format on television with many distinctive subplots than in a two-hour movie with a hero and a heroine only. Also, Tom and Julia never have time to develop any chemistry or romance or even depth of character. The one supposedly revelatory flashback is given to the Bosnian terrorist as he sobs in Sarajevo over the bodies of his wife and child, slain by Serbian sniper fire. This Sergio Leone-like rip-off is grotesquely misplaced to explain the motivation of a potential mass murderer of innocent men, women and children. Leone used this device to explain the actions of his heroes to rid the world of certain evil men, and in a more stylized genre. Leone’s villains figured in the flashbacks only as cruel sadists, not as sympathetic sufferers.

After Gary Oldman’s tearfully hammy performance as a self-pityingly homicidal hijacker of Air Force One , we seem to be in for a run of slobbering Slavs as histrionic villains in Hollywood’s post-Cold War scenarios. The Peacemaker , which might easily be retitled The Pacemaker , is hardly worse than most of the past summer’s action blockbusters, but it seems to have arrived one season too late for moviegoers looking for more challenging fare in autumn and winter. As the first Dreamworks SKG release, The Peacemaker may come in for more savage scrutiny than it deserves. The production values of mobs and masses on the move over the ashes of Communism are not unimpressive, and Armin Mueller-Stahl, in a small part as a world-weary spy, is, as always, mesmerizing. All in all, The Peacemaker should not be regarded as the last word on Mr. Clooney and Dreamworks, but it probably will be by some of the more censorious among us.

James’ Tenacious Heiress Enjoys a Quiet Triumph