CFS: ‘Washington Square’

Marlee Morden

To recreate a classic American novel is no small feat. To reinvent an Academy Award-winning rendition of the same novel is an even greater undertaking.

The upcoming feature in Villanova’s Cultural Film Series, “Women Take the Camera,” is Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 film “Washington Square.”

The film is based on Henry James’ 1881 novel of the same name. It uses high society characters in mid-19th-century New York to weave a story that would ring true at any place or time.

This visually sensational period piece leaves the audience to consider the interplay of love and money and what these mean within a family.

When Morris Townsend, a poor commoner, seeks the courtship of wealthy heiress Catherine Sloper, her father is suspicious of Townsend’s intentions.

She is ultimately forced to choose between Townsend’s love and her father’s approval.

Film critics praise Holland’s recreation of 1800s New York, describing her meticulous attention to detail as curatorial in nature.

The setting is impressively accurate, but the most noteworthy element is the beautifully elaborate period costumes. The materials and styles are spot-on, and columnist Lisa Schwarzbaum compares the glowing color scheme as “the same as that of a 17th-century van Dyck still life.”

The result is a stunning visual complement to a compelling, dramatic tale.

The cast features Jennifer Jason Leigh as the charming, yet dull, Catherine Sloper. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, Leigh was ubiquitous in Hollywood; she made the 1987 Harper’s Bazaar list of the most beautiful women in the world.

Of all the characters that Leigh has played, she has said that she identifies most with that of Catherine.

Her transformative performance reflects this connection with her role. Supporting cast includes a young Jennifer Garner as Marian Almond, Albert Finney as Dr. Austin Sloper and the perennial matronly figure, Maggie Smith, as Lavinia Penniman.

“Washington Square” will be shown in the Connelly Cinema four times: Saturday, April 18 at 7 p.m.; Sunday, April 19 at 3:30 and 7 p.m.; and Monday, April 20 at 7 p.m.

The Monday night viewing will feature guest speaker Megan Quigley, an associate English professor at Villanova who specializes in British and Irish modernism.