Movies based on classic novels keep making waves in American theaters, and the trend gathers more energy with two Henry James adaptations this season.
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."
If this feeling is correct, audiences may respond enthusiastically to Jennifer Jason Leigh's virtuoso portrayal of an increasingly alert woman battling manipulative men. The film may also prove appealing for what Holland calls a "religious dimension" embedded in the plot. "Religious connotations didn't interest James," she notes, "but I think the sweet but stubborn humility of Catherine makes her pretty religious. I don't think she's a martyr, but she knows that if you believe in something, you have to follow it."
As a serious artist who wants to explore serious issues and ideas, Holland is upset with the ever-increasing pressure of box-office demands. This results in superficial movies, she laments, and lazy audiences who demand a steady stream of instant thrills.
"This narrows my options," she says. "There is less and less space for somebody like me, since commercial movies have become so completely market-driven.... I think [things] will get better, but I don't know how long it will take."
Has her progress as a filmmaker been hindered by being a woman in a male-dominated profession? "I think being a woman helped me," she responds with a smile. "I was so strange, so bizarre as I made my career - a Polish Jewish woman in France - that everybody noticed me!"
Asked if her work reflects a specifically female sensibility, she answers that there are subtle differences between her movies and those directed by men.
"The point of view is slightly different," she says. "There's a slight difference in where I place the accents in a scene." Male crew members have occasionally found it difficult to accept her authority, but this has never been a major problem. "I'm probably more like a mother figure when I'm shooting a film," she smiles. "I'm interested more in the people than in giving orders."
Before 'Washington Square,' There Was 'The Heiress'
NEITHER the work of Henry James nor the story of "Washington Square" is new to the silver screen. A classic version arrived in neighborhood theaters 48 years ago, when Paramount unveiled "The Heiress," starring Olivia de Havilland as the retiring young heroine, Montgomery Clift as the suitor endowed with more charm than wealth, and Ralph Richardson as the father whose egocentricity brings emotional stress to all concerned.
Agnieszka Holland hadn't seen it when she decided to proceed with her own version of the tale, but its many fans will surely make comparisons as they watch the new edition.
A longtime favorite, "The Heiress" gains its power from excellent acting and extraordinarily creative directing by William Wyler, whose credits include "The Best Years of Our Lives" and "The Little Foxes." He has earned praise for a "long take" filming style that allows performances to develop in leisurely, unbroken shots rather than the quickly edited montages of more conventional movies.
The performers in "The Heiress" use this to their best advantage, with Richardson making an especially strong impression as the self-absorbed parent whose insensitivity is hidden by a cloak of genteel manners and iron-willed paternalism. The only weak link is de Havilland's occasional overplaying of Catherine's gradually awakened emotional strength.
"The Heiress" was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning two for de Havilland's performance and Aaron Copland's music. It is available from MCA Home Video.