James and misinterpretation

The late 1990s saw a surge in adaptations of Henry James for the big screen.  Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady was released in 1996, Iain Softley’s Wings of the Dove followed the following year, and James Ivory’s The Golden Bowl appeared in 2000.  The most successful of these is probably The Wings of the Dove, which straightens out some of the kinks of James’ novel but retains many of its ambiguities and subtleties.  (Campion’s film is just the opposite—it takes more audacious interpretive risks but only succeeds half the time.)  It’s easy to see how Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square (1997) got lost in the shuffle of these higher-profile adaptations.  Holland’s choices are less bold than Campion’s, and the film is also less dramatically satisfying than Softley’s.  The irony of the novel’s dramatic reversals gets lost in Holland’s adaptation, which falls prey to the kind of overwrought sentimentality that one never, ever finds in James.  It can’t hold a candle to The Heiress (1949), William Wyler’s more appropriately devastating setting of the same story.  The Heiress may take significant liberty with the source material, but Wyler understands the acts of cruelty on which James’ fiction turns in ways that Holland doesn’t.  As the young lovers in Holland’s film, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ben Chaplin feel miscast.  Better are Albert Finney as the imperious Dr. Sloper and Maggie Smith as the fluttery Mrs. Penniman.   

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