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Victorian Secrets

Jennifer Jason Leigh, who's played everything from an acid-tongued Jazz Age sophisticate in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle to a drug-addled Nineties narc in Rush, has a lot to live up to as the heroine in the new adaptation of Henry James's classic Washington Square.

First there's the literary weight of the great author himself. Over the decades, Henry James has figured in almost as many movies as, say, Henry Fonda--ranging from the sublime (Merchant-Ivory's The Europeans and Jack Clayton's chilling The Innocents) to the ridiculous (Peter Bogdanovich's disastrous 1974 Daisy Miller and Jane Campion's tedious Portrait of a Lady, set loose only last year).

There's also the imposing ghost of Olivia de Havilland. That's because the most rewarding of all Jamesian journeys from page to screen may well be William Wyler's The Heiress, the 1949 gem in which de Havilland memorably portrayed a gullible rich girl whose life is ruined by a gold-digging Victorian scoundrel despite storm warnings from her stern, world-weary father.

The Heiress is, of course, Washington Square itself, traveling only slightly incognito. Anyone who watches it half a century later might rightly conclude that it's still the last word (and picture) on the subject.

What a pleasure, then, to report that director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa), the versatile Ms. Jason Leigh and--here's the big bonus--matchless Albert Finney have breathed new life into James's mid-career masterpiece. What's more, they've restored his original textures and tones. In an era when action directors, postmodernists looking to plump up their period-piece resumes and semi-literate starlets all insist on taking a crack at Jane Austen or Edith Wharton, it's nice to behold moviemakers who can venture into what used to be Merchant-Ivory country without looking like bumpkins come to the palace.

James's heroine, the plain-faced, bumbling heiress Catherine Sloper, can be no picnic to play--not for the first hour of screen time, anyway. Smothered in acres of silk taffeta (kudos to costume designer Anna Sheppard), she's a painfully needy wallflower of a bygone day, so eager to get dear old Dad's afternoon glass of sherry into his hands that she bangs into tables and chairs, so uncertain about her looks and her thoughts that when a young man finally pays her mind at a sun-drenched garden party, she's struck dumb. Jason Leigh probably wasn't buying lunch for her makeup artists or for cinematographer Jerzy Zielinski. Working for character, their joint effort here was to obscure her delicate beauty, to shrink those oversized green eyes, to make a sparrow of a meadowlark.

It is that brown, repressed bird who falls prey first to her willful, sardonic father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Finney), then to the charming cad Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), an artist when it comes to simultaneously telling vulnerable Catherine how much he loves her and taking notice that her trust fund provides $80,000 a year--a sum not inconsiderable in the tree-lined, front-door-unlatched New York of the 1850s. Dad, of course, sees the boy as an idler and a bounder, but Holland doesn't mind taking up poor Catherine's cause and keeping us in suspense. When Morris protests to the doctor that he's "simply looking to turn an honest penny," some may want to believe. But the covetous look on his smooth, handsome face as he gazes upon a silver cigar case in the Sloper drawing room hints otherwise. Over the years, Catherine comes to understand that she's been exploited by two men.

This, of course, is Henry James's enduring theme--the collision of innocence with experience, usually exemplified by the exuberant, naive American (here personified by Maggie Smith's foolishly meddlesome Aunt Lavinia, the inevitable matchmaker) who runs into the knowing, decadent values of Europe. The expatriate author did this himself, and so does Catherine. Dr. Sloper hauls her around the Continent for a full year, hoping to quench her devotion to Morris. But what develops instead is a daughter who's suddenly more polished, confident and mature--a daughter more like himself. She still loves Morris, but self-realization is to be her fate, not fairy tale. This represents James the social observer at his best and sends a message even more appropriate in our day than it was in Wyler's, back in 1949. To wit: Where de Havilland's heroine grew increasingly bitter and brittle in the face of disillusionment, Jason Leigh's blossoms into the picture of liberation. When, at the ceremonial reading of Dr. Sloper's will, the disinherited heiress bursts out laughing at the ironies surrounding "father's all-important fortune," the moment is electric. Holland, screenwriter Carol Doyle and Jason Leigh clearly take special pleasure in it: Free at last is their Catherine from all manner of victimization.

This is not the kind of thing clumsy Cybill Shepherd was able to bring off as an unrecognizable Daisy Miller 23 years ago, and it's not what most modernist anthems to feminism achieve: This is pure Henry James, who stands the test of time.

Good for Jason Leigh, who probably deserves another Oscar nomination for her lovely, nuanced piece of work, and good for Finney, who brings to bear upon the father his customary combination of high gravity and sly wit. Maggie Smith, the conniving magpie to Catherine's sparrow, manages her Miss Jean Brodie act again, and young Chaplin, seen earlier in The Truth About Cats and Dogs, is just right as the see-through suitor.

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