ONE OF THE minor wonders of the modern world is that Henry James' austere little novel "Washington Square" holds such appeal for dramatists. The book's heroine is not only plain but dull, her lover is contemptibly weak and the ending offers little of the romantic satisfaction favored by audiences. Nevertheless, William Wyler adapted it in the 1949 film "The Heiress" (and helped Olivia de Havilland win a Best Actress Oscar for the lead), a stage version enjoyed a healthy run on Broadway recently and now Agnieszka Holland has filmed "Washington Square," with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine Sloper and Albert Finney as her father.
The Slopers live in a handsome house facing the leafy heart of Greenwich Village (as it was in the mid-1800s, before the bohemians took over). Catherine worships her father, but she's been his chief disappointment since her birth, an event which caused the death of his lovely, much mourned wife. She lacks her mother's looks and wit, and her shy gracelessness brings out his sarcastic side. ("Can this magnificent creature be my daughter?" he asks when confronted by Catherine in a particularly awful evening gown.) When the handsome but destitute Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin) comes a-courting, Dr. Sloper squelches the romance. Since, he announces, no man could possibly fall in love with his daughter, Morris must be after her money.
This version of "Washington Square," we're assured, is far more faithful to the book than Wyler's. Well, not quite. Both movies need to amp up the story's drama because, as with most of James' fiction, the "action" consists of minute shiftings of mood and manners, stuff that's barely visible even when it's blown up to big-screen proportions. When Catherine, who's willing to sacrifice her fortune for love, confronts the waffling Morris, she winds up demanding the truth, chasing his carriage down a rainy street and collapsing into a pile of bedraggled hoop skirts in the mud. James accomplishes their estrangement in a mere letter, all the more chilling for its perfect discretion.
How much does it really matter, though, a movie's fidelity to the novel that inspired it? "The Heiress" is an enjoyable bar of high Hollywood soap, with a juicily vindictive finish ("Why shouldn't I be cruel? I've been taught by masters!"). Holland's version is more sober and less fun, truer to the complexity of James' characters but missing the courtly irony of the author's voice. As a movie it feels curatorial -- a painstaking reproduction of 19th-century New York life -- and intelligent. Holland chooses not to dot every "i," which provides us with a chance to mull over the exact meaning of Catherine's final transformation. Holland's movie is mysterious, but not bewildering, as Jane Campion's crude adaptation of "The Portrait of a Lady" proved to be last year.
It's hard to say whether the miscasting of Leigh as Catherine mars "Washington Square" significantly; perhaps with a performer less hammy it would have simply been dull. Leigh can't seem to act without calling attention to herself, without making the viewer conscious of how talented she feels she is, and how committed to her art. She's far more guilty of this than poor Meryl Streep ever was, but since Leigh doesn't arrive trailing an aura of the highbrow stage, she gets away with it. Her range is limited -- she can only play glowering and hopelessly damaged women -- but she handles herself respectably in the later parts of the film, as the disillusioned older Catherine.
What Leigh doesn't convey is Catherine's early innocence; she's incapable of transparency or sweetness, so she opts for clumsiness instead, gallumphing and tripping at every opportunity. (Even worse is an early scene from Catherine's childhood, depicting a humiliating music recital, that reeks of the trendy confessional -- "My Childhood Trauma" -- and would have made James wince.) Leigh can't disguise her consciousness that Catherine is a victim (that's, after all, what makes this a Jennifer Jason Leigh role), so the poignancy in the hapless young woman's gradual discovery of the truth gets muted. Leigh's Catherine comes out cringing like a mistreated dog; she never looks as if she really believes she's loved, so the destruction of that delusion hardly registers.
In the old school of Great Acting, we have Albert Finney and Maggie Smith in the roles of Dr. Sloper and Lavinia, his giddy, meddling, drama-starved sister and Catherine's chaperone. Ben Chaplin (he played the generic Cute Guy in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") has more to work with, and he runs with it. His Morris is a slippery marvel, whose proportion of sincerity to guile never quite stabilizes; even his face can look angelic one moment and beastly the next. Suppose he doesn't really love Catherine, her Aunt Elizabeth (the splendid Judith Ivey) suggests, "Why shouldn't she have some happiness, even if she has to buy it?" Chaplin's Morris is fluid enough to make that scenario sound plausible, and perhaps it is.
Except for Leigh's occasional excesses, Holland's "Washington Square" is admirably tasteful. If anything, it's more delicate and restrained than James himself when it comes to interpreting Catherine's ultimate decision about Morris. The story's strange, small ending has a certain hushed gravity in the book, but in this movie -- and I suspect, any movie that might try to treat it faithfully -- it hangs like a question mark. Perhaps it's a hungering after enigmas that's drawing so many current screenwriters to James' stubbornly uncinematic fiction. Whether any of them will succeed in translating the power of his deepest work to celluloid is one more question waiting to be answered.