The Director's Chair Interviews
Holland Revives 'Washington Square'
Written by Nina Davidson
BEVERLY HILLS - With graceful dignity, director Agnieszka Holland transforms the Henry James classic "Washington Square" into a stately meditation of self-awareness. Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as awkward heiress Catherine Sloper, the film follows her attempts at love and independence in the shadow of her domineering father, played by Albert Finney.
Holland, 48, the renowned auteur of such films as "Europa, Europa" and "The Secret Garden," said she did not figure Leigh for the restrained role of Catherine, but was convinced by meeting her in person for the first time.
"In most of the material I've seen her in, she has an incredible amount of anger, and I thought it's not right for this character, who's very sweet, and very, very naked, very naive in some way, and very generous also, gentle," she said. "I didn't know Jennifer personally before, and when I met her, I was surprised how different she is from anything I've seen of her. I thought it will be a fascinating journey to do it together, and to let her show this part of her personality which is, I think, the real truth of her, and which is so incredibly generous, and shy."
The Hollywood Pictures production also stars Ben Chaplin as Catherine's penniless suitor Morris Townsend, and Maggie Smith as her frivolous aunt Lavinia. The relentless realism of the piece skewers the conventions of 19th-century New York City, and Holland painstakingly recreated the drawing rooms of the Victorian elite.
"I am the realist, I feel very comfortable when this reality's exact. I think it brings something to the fabric of the movie, it brings something, also it helps actors enormously," she said. "They feel that it's real, that they can really find themselves in these circumstances. And it's interesting, it's like a cultural journey a bit, you go there to this period, and you really know that you are seeing something which was the real life of the people one hundred years ago."
Before embarking on filming, Holland watched the 1949 adaptation of "Washington Square," a black and white version titled "The Heiress" with Olivia De Havilland in the lead role. "The Heiress," based on a stage play of the same name, inspired Holland to make a completely different movie.
"I found it was very different, it has a very Hollywoodian concept in some way of the main character. It is in some way the revenge story. The character becomes, by the end, as cynical, as cruel, as the people, the men, the father, the lover who betrayed her," she said. "And for me, when I read 'Washington Square,' it's not at all a revenge story. The character who takes the revenge wasn't interesting to me at all. I think the beauty of the character is that she stays what she was in the beginning, except that she knows who she is, and she accepts the truth about herself and other people. It's about integrity in some way."
Holland managed to keep her integrity as an artist despite growing up in the totalitarian regime of communist Poland. She tried to emigrate West several times, but her visa was denied eleven years in a row because of her Jewish faith. A colleague of such Polish filmmakers as Krzysztof Kieslowski, she left her homeland in 1981 as a political exile. Holland now divides her time between Los Angeles and France.
"Making movies in a communist country, it meant that you had to be approved, and every year your project had to be approved, and you as a person had to be approved by the high political authorities," she said. "I had to struggle a lot with that. Finally I was able to make movies with the help of my colleagues and friends."
The censorship board vetoed all of her scripts for four years before she managed to produce "Provincial Actors" in 1979. She also assisted Andrzej Wajda with his acclaimed projects "Man of Iron" and "Danton." One aspect of film making in Poland radically different from the United States is the American emphasis on profit.
"No one really pushed us to make any kind of box-office successes, it was the opposite, you know," she said. "It was better not to be successful, in some ways, for the authorities. Make the movie, and especially if the movie had some kind of political impact, to keep it as small as possible."
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