An Heir To 'The Heiress'

IF YOU'VE READ HENRY JAMES'S ""WASHington Square,'' or seen either William Wyler's 1949 movie ""The Heiress'' or the play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, you may think a new version is unnecessary. You may think, as well, that movies of classic 19th-century novels have to be genteel decorative objects more suitable for PBS than your local cineplex. Think again. Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland (""Europa, Europa,'' ""The Secret Garden'') shakes the dust off our preconceptions to give us a Washington Square that both respects James's complexities and bitter ironies and adds a visceral kick all its own.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is the wallflower Catherine Sloper--awkward, plain and guileless--who grows up in the shadow of her father's disappointment. Dr. Sloper (Albert Finney), an esteemed physician with a sarcastic wit, can never forgive his daughter for being the agent of his wife's death in childbirth. When a handsome but penniless young man, Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), transforms Catherine's expectations with his declarations of love, her father smells a fortune-hunting rat and is determined to prevent a marriage.

The ensuing drama of competing wills is played out in ways at once funny, heartbreaking, savage and subtle. Leigh calibrates Catherine's metamorphosis from timid diffidence to abashed passion to resigned self-knowledge with microscopic precision. Chaplin finds unexpected layers of neediness and self-laceration in the charming, ambiguous Townsend, and Finney brings a slashing sardonic power to Dr. Sloper, a man who is right for all the wrong reasons. Holland and screenwriter Carol Doyle have given James a feminist spin without diminishing the men in the tale: everyone in this painful triangle is granted a near-tragic stature. The broad comic aspects rest in the deft hands of Maggie Smith as the excitable meddler, Aunt Lavinia. No longer a tale of revenge, as ""The Heiress'' was, Holland's passionate version may be truer to James. He'd be startled by its earthiness, but he'd recognize these bruised, complex hearts as his own.