She Knows her Worth
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith
Released October 10th, 1997
The supremely dislikable Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney) is a wealthy 19th century man who has no warm feelings for his daughter Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whom he considers to be a failure in every respect. Dr. Sloper focuses on his practice and hands his daughter to her Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Dame Maggie Smith) for raising. Sloper harbors scorn for Catherine’s very existence, blaming her for the death of his wife in childbirth, saying “How obscene that your mother should give her life so you could inhabit space on this Earth.”
A romance blossoms as Catherine meets Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), who courts and wishes to marry her. Her father cannot believe anyone would want to marry his plain daughter other than to acquire his wealth and warns against the union. We the audience want Catherine to be able to move on from her awful father, but we are not sure about her beloved Morris’ true intentions. To say that options for women were limited during this time in history is putting it kindly.
Jan A. P. Kaczmarek’s regal score sets the tone as Cinematographer Jerzy Zielinsky offers a lush view of gorgeous people doing ugly things while dressed in costume designer Anna Sheppard’s impeccable outfits. Truly, this ensemble is second-to-none. A never-better Ben Chaplin imbues Morris Townsend with a sincerity that makes you root for him, even as you question his motives. Maggie Smith is remarkable as Aunt Lavinia, stealing every scene she’s in with a smile. Washington Square also features the screen debut of a radiant Jennifer Garner.
Albert Finney brings Dr. Austin Sloper to life as an absolute monster. One of the most unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered, Finney wastes no opportunity to double down on his churlish behavior. Jennifer Jason Leigh is known for playing fierce women, so watching her play someone meek is strange. But her performance is excellent, choosing to play Catherine as someone whose strength is always just below the surface, ready to reveal itself when it is time.
This version of Washington Square is directed by Agnieszka Holland, who was accused in some contemporary reviews of adding a feminist slant to Henry James’ story. I don’t feel like that’s a bad thing, and through her lens Catherine’s plight is captured in a most human fashion. A story such as this can seem impenetrable upon first viewing, but on rewatch the desperation and heartbreak cuts through the pomp and circumstance. The Kino Lorber Blu-ray features trailers for other costume dramas and a sparse but insightful director’s commentary, during which we learn that Holland respects The Heiress, William Wyler’s 1949 version of Washington Square, but doesn’t feel it was close enough to the spirit of Henry James’ novel.