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Trying to Restore 'Washington Square'

Movies: Director Agnieszka Holland recreates the period and promises to be faithful to author Henry James.

August 30, 1996|STEPHEN HUNTER | THE BALTIMORE SUN

BALTIMORE — "Hot Sex," the sign says, but of course some wag with a Magic Marker and a penchant for wishful thinking has altered the original, which merely promised "Hot Set."

No, there's probably not much sex going on. The set is, however, indisputably hot. It costs about $2 million and sits in a building that resembles a 747 hangar on a nondescript parcel wedged into a nondescript Baltimore neighborhood; you could drive by it for years and never even notice it. But inside, nothing's nondescript.

Instead, step through the door marked Hot Sex and find yourself in a contradictory universe. The antique furnishings, the damask tablecloth, the paintings, the curtains: All say 1850, the milieu of the prosperous bourgeois at the time of maximum comfort. The miles of cable on the floor, the VCRs, the racks of lamps and hosts of technicians all say 1996, big-time movie making.

The two worlds--and many others--meet in the improbable figure of Agnieszka Holland, 48, the former Polish exile film director who has come to Baltimore's Flite 3 Film Studio as well as to Union Square and the Latrobe House to restore Henry James' "Washington Square" to the screen.

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This version, the promise has been made, will present the story as James himself wrote it, not as it was popularized, bowdlerized and sentimentalized in the 1949 film version called "The Heiress."

As one soon learns, the formidable Holland is not one for popularizing, bowdlerizing or sentimentalizing.

A brusque woman in tennis shoes and a shapeless green dress with a short haircut, she appears never to have heard of the world of fashion. This is said not in contempt but in complete admiration: Nothing appears to exist at all to her except this little world behind the Hot Sex door where her will commands absolute obedience.

So utterly committed to her work, so utterly in command, so utterly without pretense, she navigates her world with almost absolute authority, as if the lessons she's mastered almost mastered her, but now that she knows them, nothing will get in her way.

"I like to have things the way I like to have them," she will confess later, with a tyrant's modest smile and almost a giggle. Then she'll add, almost with a regret, "I try to stay open to the creativity of my staff and actors," and you think, "Yeah, they all say that."

And to look at Holland is to encounter all European complexity in its full meatiness. She's been a blacklist victim, an exile, a dissenter, a political jailbird; she's been called an anti-Semite (she's half Jewish); she's called people (mainly Germans) anti-Semites; she hasn't lived with her husband, a journalist, in years; she went through a separation from her daughter for months before reunification in the West; her father may even have been murdered by the secret police.

Her resume reads like a history of the world cinema. In France, she made the very French movie "Olivier, Olivier." In England, she made the classic English tale "The Secret Garden." In Germany, she made the ironic and still controversial "Europa, Europa," winning an Oscar nomination in the process. In her native Poland, in the days before her exile, she made "A Woman Alone" and "Angry Harvest."

But is "Washington Square" really so far from a European sensibility?

James, after all, was a notoriously queasy American who felt much more at home in Europe. In his own way, perhaps, he was escaping American simplicity and grasping at European ambiguity.

"It is," confirms the intense Holland in later conversation, "the ambiguous quality of James that I find so attractive. That and the dynamic of change in the main character, as she goes from nothing to her own sense of self-hood."

That role, Catherine Sloper, is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who can be glimpsed on the set in a pair of khakis and a shapeless sweater as she drearily goes through some early blocking assignments for the day's shots.

The possibly unworthy swell who woos her is played by Ben Chaplin, who rose to prominence in "The Truth About Cats and Dogs."

The real heavyweight in the cast is Albert Finney, a virtual Olmec statue of pure 100% Irish beef who shows up for the same dreary blocking work in a sleeveless T-shirt and a pair of suspenders and some blue trousers.

Will Holland's notoriously complex view of life frighten off a big-time American studio?

"I don't have to deal with it," she says. "The producers take care of that."

Then she adds: "It's nice to work with talented people, but I never started out to become a Hollywood director. It wasn't my target to do A-movies; it was my target to do the kind of movies that I do well. I'm a storyteller. The visuals are important to me, but my energy is what I bring to the story and what I enjoy."

Holland's films take her all over the world, and she says, "You start and you cannot stop. You can't go back. If I had a choice I would do anything to escape. But this turned out to be my destiny."

Although Holland owns a house in France and keeps apartments in several cities, she says she sometimes feels homeless.

But maybe things aren't so bleak as they seem. Lately, she says, she's been feeling more optimistic, more hopeful. Although Americans fear the tragic in life and she "is always facing the truth, even if it's painful," she notes small changes in her temperament.

"When I was young," she recalls, "I loved Dostoevsky and Kafka. Now I find it's too depressing. For me, now, I read Chekhov: He's somewhere between rational despair and elegance, and that I like."

Life, as they say, goes on, whether in 1850 or 1996.

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