Jennifer Jason Leigh can drive you nuts, alternating transcendent performances (Georgia, Last Exit to Brooklyn) with mannered, nerve-grating star turns (Mrs. Parker, Dolores Claiborne). She serves up her best and worst as Catherine Sloper, the wallflower daughter of a domineering New York doctor (Albert Finney in fine, wicked fettle) who is determined to save her from Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), a suitor whom the doc has pegged as a fortune hunter. Director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa) hews closer to the 1881 novel by Henry James than to The Heiress, the successful stage adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz. The play became a 1949 film — an Oscar vehicle for Olivia deHavilland, whose Catherine took revenge on male cruelty at the expense of her own happiness.
Holland and first-time screenwriter Carol Doyle apply a feminist twist that neither James nor the Goetzes imagined. Leigh’s Catherine moves from clumsy dolt to new woman, a nurturer of the young who finds that a full life, including men but not necessarily marriage and children, is the best revenge.
Washington Square survives this deconstruction — even Dr. Sloper’s talk of Morris’ young, sinewy body (how does he know with those period clothes?) and the early stages of Leigh’s portrayal, when she overdoes the stammers and stumbles to show Catherine’s virginal hysteria. Leigh grows into the role in subtle encounters with Finney and the great Maggie Smith, as Catherine’s interfering, sexually repressed Aunt Penniman.
Leigh is most touching with Chaplin, a Brit with the looks and charm to stand comparisons to Montgomery Clift in the first film version. The drawing-room scene in which Morris steals his first kiss from Catherine — she faints dead away — is ravishingly done. Ditto the movie. For once, the heat generated by a costume drama has nothing to do with being stuffy.