Darwinism, selective adaptation, rationalism, a stone cold universe--these are the main characters in the film adaptation of Henry James' novel "Washington Square." I wept for the futility of the motives of the players. Forlorn-ness, weariness, desperation--these are feelings Henry James (author) passed out with plenitude to both Morris and Catherine, the exquisitely needy main characters.
Catherine, an only child, who lives at Washington Square, under the strict supervision of her doctor-father, is a most emotionally deplete character at the begining. Played with utmost perfection, with downward stares, gazes from under obedient eyes, a shrinking of body in the presence of men, Jennifer Jason-Leigh lived that character. So does Chaplin as Morris with perfect beauty, necessary emotional repertoire and glib talent with tongue and ready story. He is as extraordinarily handsome as she is plain. Yet, by steady and intense tender attention, he brings out a lively Catherine no one has ever seen, least of all her domineering father.
This is a story of want meeting need, with each discovering in the other the answer to each dilemma, with one (Morris) knowing what is needed, the other (Catherine) just feeling what is wanted. They meet at an engagement party (so ripe a setting for possibility). It is amazing to watch Morris see Catherine and fall instantly in love with her. Or is it a game? Her father, the wealthy doctor, thinks so and discourages her at every turn. Personally, I watched carefully for any slippage in his facial control to detect a false face or mocking smile. But never. He seemed genuinely to care. On the other hand Catherine refuses--initially-- to accept or believe his intentions. Her father has well-trained her to believe she is stupid and plain and desired by men only for her future fortune.
At the beginning when I spoke of despair and weariness, I mentioned these in accordance with the scientific and philosophic views of the day: the cold indifference of the universe, the non-involvement of the religious with daily life, almost a cold, calculating universe in its own way.
There is in some religious circles today the belief that prayer not only changes the one prayed for, but the one doing the praying. Although an anachronism, surely the context is the same: Morris does fall in love with this poor creature he is wooing. That is my impression. Of course, she loses herself passionately.
That's all I need say about the film. For sure, it is a powerful drama that unfolds before one's eyes and, for sure, the ending is both expected and incredibly sad. Yes, how can we ever push ego into the bushes and seize the moment and take a chance? Why are we so stubborn? Can there occur a merging between these two? What would it take? Everything? Nothing? Can we go too far past a certain point? Oh, I could keep asking these questions, but the answer remains the same: It is what James made it to be. His book reflects the values not only of his day, but our day as well. The story could go differently today, but should it? Can there be too much in a relationship to return to its purer moments?
Addendum: Added in response to a reader comment:
I accept as valid the reader-response (in this case, the viewer-response) genre of criticism. The author/director presents to his/her audience a version of some form of the Truth. The viewer can accept that view as one of the Truths of the universe or not. James was presenting the idea of the possibilities available to plain, but wealthy young women. In this film there was only one, Morris wants Catherine for her money. That's it. If she didn't have money, he would never have shown interest. One particular line shows this: "I wasted two years of my youth courting you AND your money (my emphasis)"-- Just recently I heard a phrase that really stuck in my head: "I settled." Compromised, accepting less than what is truly desired. Catherine would have settled at that moment. Years later she refused to take less. Maybe I did read more into the story than what James intended (rationalism, Darwinism), but I think I can justify my declaration. Morris was willing to "settle" with plain Catherine BUT wads of money (survival of the fittest?) and she, too, with such a charming and handsome man, having decided he did love her (the Watchmaker is sitting in the heavens, so we live life as we find it, not relying on a god to intercede--or is this Ann Rand-ism/objectivism?)
My final question is: Do we take love in whatever form we find it OR do we live by moral and ethical values, for self-respect which is cold and empty. Which causes more pain? Less? The film deeply disturbed me--on a personal level, not as a random viewer-- because of its lack of acceptable alternatives, indeed as life is often lived!
How does James present Morris in the novel? Does he come to love Catherine at all or is his behavior all a game for gain? After such a film, reading the novel becomes necessary...
Books on my very ambitious TBR list (*denotes read)
- *Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever by Mem Fox
- The Odd Women by George Gissing
- The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson
- How to Get Your Child to Love Reading by Esme Raji Codell
- The Cod Tale by Mark Kurlansky
- In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
- *Joan of Arc by Mark Twain
- Dag Hammarskjold by Elizabeth Rider Montgomery
- The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael L. Munk
- Children of Strangers by Lyle Saxon
- Spiritual Writings by Flannery O'Connor
- Nightmares and Visions: Flannery O'Connor and the Catholic Grotesque by Gilbert H. Muller
- The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O'Connor
- Flannery O'Connor's South by Robert Coles
- Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
- Sylvanus Now by Donna Morrissey
- *Vincent de Paul by Margaret Ann Hubbard
- Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
- A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking
- The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel
- Readicide by Kelly Gallagher
- *Ruined by Paula Morris
- Say You're Not One of Them by Uwem Akpan
- Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clezio
- Silence by Shusaku Endo
- *The Assault by Harry Mulisch
- Kari's Saga by Robert Jansson
- *The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal
- Western Skies by Joseph Conrad
- *The Giver by Lois Lowery
- *Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski