Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
So often in Henry James it comes down to the same contest: On the one side, the yearnings of the heart, and on the other side, money. Usually it is old family money and the old family that controls it, sometimes hoping to restrict the freedom of a character (The Ambassadors), sometimes hoping to grant it (Portrait of a Lady). In James' novella Washington Square, a rich doctor cannot believe anyone would value what he considers his plain and graceless daughter, and so assumes that the man she loves is after her money. That he may be right is, for her, no consolation.
Agnieszka Holland's new movie "Washington Square'' makes of this situation a sad story about a young woman named Catherine (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who spends much of her life seeking the love of two men who do not deserve it. (The story was also filmed in 1949 as "The Heiress.'') Catherine's father, the wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper (Albert Finney) resents her because his wife died giving birth to her. Her suitor, Morris Townsend (Ben Chaplin), likes her well enough if she comes with her father's money, but not so well otherwise. Her challenge is to find some measure of self-respect in a life where everyone seems to value her because of someone else's accomplishments.
Her father is an orotund monster who demands, and even receives, the love and obedience of his daughter. He sees her as a loyal helpmate, waiting with tea when he returns from work, content to spend the rest of her days as her father's meek little companion. Her lover is poor, must marry money or make it, and knows which course he prefers, although he is handsome and agreeable enough to feel his "attributes'' are the equal of her own.
And the girl? "I've never thought of her as delightful and charming,'' the doctor says on one occasion, astonished that anyone else should. He is capable of astonishing cruelty, as when he tells her, "How obscene that your mother should give her life so that you can inhabit space on this earth.'' She is so intimidated that when asked, as a little girl, to give a recital for her father's friends, she can do no more than pee on the floor.