Agnieszka Holland vs William Wyler: on two adaptations of Henry James's Washington Square

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Date: Summer 2004
From: Post Script(Vol. 23, Issue 3)
Publisher: Post Script, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,332 words

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Since the outset of her film career Agnieszka Holland has shown an inclination to concentrate on psychological and sociological issues related to gender. Prior to emigration from Poland in 1981, she made two movies devoted entirely to portraits of their women protagonists: Cosza cos [Something, for Something, 1977] and Kobieta samotna [A Lonely Woman, 1980]. Similarly, Henry James was an author of women's portraits, a "feminine" writer, as it were, keenly interested in the psyche of women, in the condition of women in Western society. (Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary the first novel about the soul of a woman--was his model). Agnieszka Holland based her Washington Square (1997) on Henry James's novel of the same title, a book Graham Green called "[...] maybe the only book in which a man successfully entered the feminine world and created a work following the example of the novels of Jane Austen" (Green 16, my translation). Illustrating in his works the conflict between Good and Evil, James sharply contrasted evil with virtue, purity,, and innocence--values almost always represented by women. In his novels they are usually "the centres of innocence, the objects of betrayal" (Green 17).

The second important characteristic of James's writing that may have attracted the Polish filmmaker to his prose is the priority of the psychological perspective over plot events (action) and over any sociological perspective. His novels, pervaded by a deep psychological realism, are above all psychological studies--subtle, convincing spiritual portraits of their heroes and, in particular, their heroines, whose inner (psychological) experience is placed at the centre of attention, for according to James "the task of a novel is to record experiences" (Zbierski 522).

A third motive that may have drawn Holland to James' novel seems to me to be the contrast between Good and Evil that underlies the moral conflicts, but that is devoid of any moralizing tendencies, offers no moral evaluation, and suggests no solutions.

Holland also manifests an inclination to psychologically penetrating, morally complex human portraits. In her works--as in James's novels--the wronged, cheated, betrayed, yet simultaneously stronger and more mature human being is usually a woman. For example, in Bitter Harvest (1995, Germany) during the Second World War in German-occupied Poland, a Polish peasant, Leon--dark, simple, an old bachelor who might have been a priest, who avoids women, being afraid of them--accidentally rescues a beautiful Jewish woman, Rose, from a transport to Oswiecim concentration camp. The woman from this moment is completely at Leon's mercy: she cannot go anywhere, because as a Jew, she can be arrested in any place and at any moment. (Additionally, Poland was the only country in Europe in which people helping and hiding Jews were threatened with punishment of death,) Soon Leon's good Samaritan inclinations give way to almost animal lust. Rose, being in such a fatal situation, is forced to submit, but at the same time she has mercy on Leon, who literally beseeches her for sex. Gradually the simpleton becomes bored and tired of Rose, starts to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A128671354