In this adaptation of the novel by Henry James, Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Catherine, the lonely and somewhat unimpressive daughter of a rich doctor, Austin Sloper (Albert Finney). Dr. Sloper finds his daughter to be somewhat of a burden, not just because she is clumsy and struggles in social settings, but because before Catherine was born, he lost a son, and then his wife, during Catherine's birth. Catherine loves her father dearly (as evidenced by her excitement as his return home every evening), but that bond is tested when she falls deeply and completely in love with the handsome but poor Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), who is living with his sister while he looks for a job. Morris' dedication to Catherine is sincere, and both of them want to get married, but Dr. Sloper is convinced that Morris' interest in his daughter is solely about claiming her impressive inheritance. What follows is a series of cruel manipulations and dramatic turns, with Catherine and her emotional well-being at the center.
Washington Square is a handsome movie, featuring a cast that turns in consistently impressive and engaging work, and smooth dramatic orchestration by director Agnieszka Holland. Yet, there is some element missing that prevents the film from rising above its surface pleasures, leaving behind a film that is compelling enough as it is going and which will leave little impression upon the viewer.
To a certain degree, Washington Square is a tragedy, and a tragedy of anticlimax. Plenty of films can conjure the specific alchemy needed to make this sort of tone and style still play like a payoff, but Holland bobbles the ball in the second half of the movie. The first half is generally quite compelling (more on that in a second), taking time to build up the character dynamics and the romance, but as the film arrives at the final act, Holland loses her grip on the material, with one absolutely crucial character development muddled by an unnecessary side plot involving Catherine's Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Maggie Smith), who serves, at her father's request, as a watchful eye. Crucial developments afterward feel rushed, which is frustrating for a movie that already runs just short of two hours in length, and the fire propelling the film's dramatic engine simply peters out.
Until that point, the only nagging issue with Washington Square is that the romance lacks a certain spark. Both Leigh and Chaplin give committed performances in the movie, and individually, their commitment to one another is very convincing. Even when the pair are in the same room, acting against each other, one believes their individual passion, but between them, there is a lack of romantic or sexual chemistry. It's easy to miss or even forgive, given that the story keeps the characters apart from each other for so long, and both given other scene partners (including both Finney and Smith) to play off of in the meantime. Sadly, Chaplin is handsome but not particularly sexy, and Leigh is at her best when she is broken up about being kept away from Morris than when she is happy to be with him.
Leigh gives the strongest performance in the movie, single-handedly making the movie worth a look even with all of its flaws. She stands toe-to-toe with Finney (RIP) in several confrontations, each one marking increasing depth to Catherine. At first, she's like a child, finding joy in simple pleasures, and she can barely get a two-word sentence out the first time she meets Morris. As the film goes on, Catherine becomes smarter, returning her father's acidic barbs with matching coldness and cruelty, and even a bit of pleasure when he proves to be impenetrably stubborn. Her bitter laughter in one of the film's final two scenes is a complex knockout of emotions, and Leigh manages to touch on all of them. Finney, on the other hand, is perhaps best with Chaplin, conveying the same delight in stepping on the young man's dreams. Finney was in that certain class of British actor who was especially talented at going from warm to cold on a dime, and Holland makes good use of his callous side here, always leaving just a hint of normalcy that allows one to keep believing he might break after all.
There were two posters for Washington Square, both of which feature Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Chaplin embracing. For whatever reason, Kino Lorber has gone with the more vague design, which shows the back of Leigh's head and just a snippet of Chaplin's face resting on her neck and shoulder, rather than the one with the two actors in profile, both of their faces fully visible. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC and with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack, Washington Square gets a reasonably impressive Blu-ray upgrade. Last made available on a non-anamorphic DVD from Buena Vista over 15 years ago, the high-def presentation looks to be of a relatively recent vintage, as it removes the minimal masking that would be visible if the film's 1.85:1 ratio were preserved. Colors are the strongest aspect of this new presentation, with vivid primary reds rendered with dazzling intensity, and lush greenery in the form of gardens, lawns, and parks. Contrast is a touch heavy-handed, although the deeper blacks do not crush detail, and grain is a touch noisy. During some of the early optical shots, there is some notable print damage as well. Sound is mostly dedicated to the film's classical score by Jan A. P. Kaczmarek, and the film's dialogue, and the uncompressed track handles both more than adequately. On the other hand, while English subtitles have been included, whoever is doing the work on subtitles at Kino has gotten mighty sloppy, as the track is filled with punctuation errors, incorrect lowercase, and worst of all, multiple instances where a "screen's worth" of captions consist of two lines spoken by different characters, without any notation (usually "-") to indicate that part of the text on screen is coming from the other person.
Only one underwhelming extra is included: a new audio commentary by director Agnieszka Holland. The track starts out promising, with Holland speaking over the opening logos about the making of the movie without even introducing herself, but after only a couple of minutes, lengthy gaps start creeping into the track. She covers some of the casting, minutia of the production of certain scenes, and the hiring of several Polish crew members, but as the film continues, her comments lean toward explaining the subtext of what is already on screen, and the pauses get longer.
Bonus trailers for The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, Feast of July, Tristan + Isolde, and The Bounty are also offered under the special features menu. An original theatrical trailer for Washington Square is also included.
Washington Square has a number of impressive qualities, yet never quite exceeds those pleasures to become something more. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray is impressive on the A/V front, even if the new bonus feature is a whiff. Rent it.