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'Washington Square' Director Draws Parallels to Today

Interview Agnieszka Holland

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 1997


Movies based on classic novels keep making waves in American theaters, and the trend gathers more energy with two Henry James adaptations this season.

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The first to arrive is "Washington Square," starring Jennifer Jason Leigh as an unhappy heiress and Albert Finney as her uncaring father. Next month brings "The Wings of the Dove," a darker tale about a selfish couple and a tragically ill acquaintance.

Of the two, "Washington Square" has the best prospects for success. One reason is its high-powered cast. Another is the sensitive storytelling of director Agnieszka Holland, who's already popular with American audiences for movies like "The Secret Garden" and "Angry Harvest," an Oscar nominee in 1985.

Set in the 19th century, "Washington Square" focuses on Catherine Sloper, the diffident daughter of a well-to-do physician. When a handsome but penniless fellow proposes marriage, she's eager to begin an exciting new life.

Her father opposes the match, though, convinced no man could be attracted to his shy, homely daughter for any reason but the fortune she will someday inherit. Catherine finds herself caught between a callous parent and a suitor whose motives remain uncertain despite her desperate desire to believe in him.

"I think my touch was a bit feminist," said director Holland, discussing her approach to the story in a backstage conversation during the New York filmfest.

"The story is about a struggle between two worlds, two kinds of values. One is the male world, where money and power and possessions are the most important things. The other is a female world, where feelings and truthfulness are more important."

Filmmaking with clout

As one of the few female filmmakers with a major presence in both European and Hollywood cinema, Holland has strong opinions about the differences between male and female values and about the relevance of James's tale to contemporary issues.

"In some ways, I think the story is very modern," she says, speaking in English peppered with a mild Polish accent. "I think we live in a society very much like James's society ... very bourgeois, with strong monetary values, and a strong feeling of class. I don't mean the traditional classes, since today you can move from one class to another. But it's still true that money ... dictates very strongly where you belong and who you are."

Holland associates today's emphasis on class, money, and power with values men have cultivated since the middle of the 19th century. As a result of these values, she says, we live in a "very rationalized and monetary society, where the only god is what things are worth on the free market. People - especially women - are seen as products, or objects of desire. This is dangerous for the human soul."

Values like these are what motivates Catherine's father, who regards his daughter as a possession and sees his fortune as a tool for controlling people.

Holland finds him painfully typical of current society, but this doesn't mean she's cynical about the future. Recent events, like the outpouring of public grief over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, give her cause for optimism.

"We may be coming to a time of reaction," she says, "like the time of Romanticism at the beginning of the 19th century, when poets ... rejected the rational, nonspiritual, material values of science and manhood, and starting being attracted to more mystical, emotional, human values. In general, our society is like the one in James's story, but I feel a desire for change [among] people now."