09 May 2006

Washington Square

I am not sure what induced me to see Washington Square again. I guess I was in the mood for something sad. But it's a wonderful movie. I think I cried straight through the last 20 minutes. And then was compelled to stay up and read the short novel on the Internet (I had a copy once, from a high school English class, but it's gone now). I mainly skimmed, in spite of the delicious writing. It was already quite late. But I wanted to understand the differences.

It is a story in which a rather plain, rather simple heiress, Catherine Sloper, falls in love with a very handsome but poor young man, Morris Townsend. The heiress' father, Dr. Sloper, suspects the young man is a fortune hunter, sabotages the relationship as best he can, and ultimately the young couple part. Catherine continues in her father's house a spinster, although the relationship between her father and herself has also ruptured.

Not having read Washington Square in many years, I was surprised by a great deal; not least, that in the novel the father, Dr. Sloper, is right. In the movie, he is not right; the movie's Morris Townsend is sincere (the screenwriter, Carol Doyle, has added a speech for Morris in which he talks about requiring an audience for his vanity—he is drawn to Catherine because she—inexhaustibly—adores him, and he knows he needs someone like that), and Sloper has singlehandedly ruined his daughter's happiness. In the novel, Townsend is more clearly mercenary.

To say Dr. Sloper is right in the novel is not to say that he behaves properly; only that he's correct in his assessment of Morris. The damage he does his daughter is more subtle. He lets Catherine feel his contempt for her, which triggers for Catherine an internal metamorphosis.

In movies, everything has to be externalized and to facilitate this, complexities are often simplified. Albert Finney's Dr. Sloper acts consistently with contempt for his daughter (so the audience sees it), but Jennifer Jason Leigh's Catherine notices only when he makes that contempt explicit, muttering on an Alpine mountaintop, "That your mother died so you could have space on this earth..."

Also externalized is Catherine's desperation to marry and leave her father's "protection." In the novel you feel her desire to marry mainly as a grasp at happiness, what anyone might feel; in the movie you feel the nightmarishness of being stuck in a house with a person who has no respect for you, much less love. Catherine's father had been her chief object of devotion—from there to object of indifference is a long fall for the devotee.

Catherine responds to her misfortunes by internalizing everything, and that is paradoxically easier to convey in the movie, because in novels so much is internal anyhow. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is good at portraying repression. Her eyes are never empty; you sense her brain and spirit working.

Never the fool or quite the romantic Dr. Sloper thinks her, Catherine cannot love any person who deliberately hurts her or does not care for her. Upon recognizing her father's contempt, Catherine separates from him in her soul (since she cannot do so physically). When Morris disappoints her the wound is irreparable—Sloper thinks she does not marry because she is hoping to reunite with Morris upon his death; in fact, she has not married because she has no love left. Since her father has never learned to understand her, Catherine turns her opacity into a matter of pride. So that when he dies and his will is disclosed, largely disinheriting her because of her supposed susceptibility to fortune hunters, she says, "I like it very much."

Finally, Washington Square is the story of a dependent woman with a very independent heart.

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