Geeky Cinephile Musings…
I don't pontificate, I blather.

Finally, something worth watching (besides Mad Men)…!

Just recently I watched Washington Square, a 1997 adaptation of the Henry James novel of the same title, directed by Agnieszka Holland, and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith, and Ben Chaplin.  Originally this story was made into a 1949 film entitled The Heiress, starring Olivia de Havilland (who I have always loved–especially in the film The Snake Pit).  I haven’t seen The Heiress, nor have I read James’s book, which could perhaps explain why I loved this movie so very much when so many people seem to be panning it on Netflix.  

I never thought I’d say something so ridiculously cheery, but I found this film delightful and loaded with originality and charm.  It is BEYOND well-acted, the costumes and sets are comprised of luxurious jewel tones, and the story and script are sharp and concise.  There are two things in particular, though, that really struck me and forced me to take action and write this blog (as if anything I say here will ever convince anyone of anything…but one can always hope!). 

Firstly, as a massive period piece fan, I can safely say that seeing characters behave awkwardly in them is an utter rarity.  I don’t mean awkward in the Merchant Ivory way, where the characters interrupt each other (Good heavens! We spoke at the same time! How embarrassing!) and then glance down at the ground.  I mean TRULY AWKWARD, as in un-feminine grunts of surprise and moments of supreme clumsiness and cringing.  Most of this is achieved by Jason Leigh, who, quite frankly, is the perfect choice for this character.  She combines dark sexuality and a nerdy lack of social filters like no other actress can…if that makes any sense…  Washington Square achieves standards of inelegance that come very close to the British version of The Office, and the result is supremely entertaining.  Many of the reviews I’ve read by the Netflix punters moan that Aunt Lavinia (Maggie Smith, basically reprising her role as “Aunt Charlotte” from A Room With a View–which is fine, because, let’s face it–we love her that way) and Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) have been turned into bumbling idiots, and perhaps compared to the book, they have been, I dunno, but I feel this choice, for this film, really works.  How fascinating to see people from the late 19th century really having to PUSH hard to maintain the decorum we as 21st century folks think just came naturally to them, thanks to countless films reinforcing this notion.  In the beginning of the film,  a cringing, chubby child is asked to sing for her Papa on his birthday.  She finds she cannot due to stagefright, and while everyone is whispering and giggling, she suddenly gives up trying to sing and simply pees all over herself.  The scene actually played out much like the one in The Exorcist during the cast party, sans satanic possession, of course.

Betcha never saw THAT in Howard’s End, eh?

And bravo to the ensemble of actors in this film who had to react to these moments.  How, indeed WOULD a 19th century well-to-do family react to their child peeing her pants in public, and on Papa’s birthday, good God! We don’t really know because there is no precedence for it.  Well done, well done, huzzah.

Secondly, the details in the shot set-ups were delightful and unexpected.  It’s so funny–just the other day on AirTalk, I was listening to Larry Mantle discuss this week’s films with two critics (Henry Sheehan and Peter Rainer), and one of the critics (I believe it was Peter Rainer) was moaning about Kevin Smith’s new film, Cop Out, and how movies nowadays are not shot with any kind of imagery beyond what the director wants the audience to see–specifically, directors have taken to spoon-feeding audiences because they “feel they are too stupid” to glean any subtleties that might be thrown in.  I would tend to agree with this point, btw, although plenty of arthouse films obviously do not follow this method…but then again, arthouse films are not intended for the masses.  Anyway, how like coincidence to throw a curve ball at me and whack me on the head.  Just two days after I was agreeing with Mr. Rainer, I see this film. 

It was wonderful, because I found myself scanning the sets behind the actors and being thrilled with the little personal touches, the slight jokes.  In one scene, Morris (Ben Chaplin) is arguing with Dr. Sloper (Albert Finney) in the latter’s office about how much he loves Catherine, and Albert Finney is giving him the hand, all Daddy-Warbucks-style.  It’s a wonderfully acted scene, very absorbing…and yet…I couldn’t help but notice…at one point Dr. Sloper disappears behind a doorway and the audience is left with Ben Chaplin arguing in profile at…a large female breast! It is just a molding (after all, Dr. Sloper has an abundance of such items, being a physician) for teaching purposes, but the effect of that placement is so hilarious.  The Harry Potter films, it must be said here, always include this type of detail, and far from detracting from the story, it adds to the realism of that world.  More directors should take note.

So here I bid you adieu, and I hope that you will go to your nearest video store or to your nearest computer and rent Washington Square.  It’s well worth it…at least…until the third season of Mad Men comes out on DVD.

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2 Responses to “Finally, something worth watching (besides Mad Men)…!”

  1. Two things to add, and they don’t include any thoughtful insights into Washington Square (which I haven’t seen since 1997)…

    1.I once knew a couple of drug addicts who went to go see Washington Square based solely on the title, and who left feeling very disappointed.

    2.I don’t know if you remember this one, Joyanna, but we had Washington Square featured in our admittedly tiny “Maggie Smith” section at Video H20 while ‘The Divine Secrets Of The Ya Ya Sisterhood” was shooting in Wilmington. And when she saw it our display, she kindly told me, “you have all of my worst films”.

  2. Well, I can’t really blame her for saying so–I’m sure she’s tired of that same sort of nosy, busybody character as well.

    She probably prefers her reprised role in Sister Act 2?


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