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Sort of the Toronto of the Middle Atlantic states, Baltimore is frequently used as a stand-in for other cities. It often plays the part of Washington, as it did earlier this year in Absolute Power. Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square, however, may be the first in which Baltimore impersonates Paris.

“I found one angle which was credible, you know, and I used that one angle,” says the Polish-born director and screenwriter, who moved to Paris in 1981 to escape martial law in her home country. “Because I know very well what Paris looks like, it wasn’t so difficult.”

Those who knew very well what Baltimore looks like may not buy that scene, but the rest of Washington Square is indeed credible. Its principal problem, in fact, may be its peers: With The Portrait of a Lady ahead of it and The Wings of the Dove behind, the film could get lost in a Henry James glut.

“It’s always a bit stupid,” Holland admits. “It’s better if it’s not at the same time. They’re different stories, and I’m sure it’s a pretty different approach. But for the audience it’s confusing. Unfortunately, it happens often, because the studios are working in the same ways. You have two virus movies, you have two volcano movies, you have two Henry James movies.”

Washington Square is Holland’s third English-language film, following the disappointing Total Eclipse. Like her first, The Secret Garden, it’s based on the work of an author Holland encountered well before she began making films. “I read [James’] books in Poland when I was a teenager,” the 49-year-old director recalls. “I read a couple of his novels. Washington Square I read for the first time five years ago. I found it really…interesting. Very subtle. Very small plot. Very banal plot in some ways. But a very complex relationship between the characters.”

The novel recounts a romance between a Greenwich Village heiress, Catherine, and a man of limited means, Morris. The relationship is aided by Catherine’s aunt but strongly discouraged by her father. “What I liked the most was the change in the main character,” Holland continues. “When she opens up and gains self-confidence—that attracted me the most. Because I always want to show the real change of the character in my movies. I never had the space for that; always the plots were too complex. Also, it’s difficult to write. And I here I had a great writer [Carol Doyle] and a very good script.”

Holland came to prominence as a screenwriter, scripting such Andrzej Wajda films as Korczak and Danton. But she hasn’t written any of her English-language films. Indeed, Doyle’s script was already finished when Holland joined the project. “If [the writer]’s a talented person, it’s nice, because it brings in new ideas,” says Holland.

The director also says she has adapted to working in the American studio system. “I had some expectations,” she shrugs. “I knew what it is, Hollywood. It wasn’t a surprise. There are some good things, some bad things. It’s difficult for directors who have their own established personality, because here the director is not respected so much. The director is just a technician. Most of the studios have the final cut. If they want, they can change my movie. That is a concept that is very frightening for most directors. But it’s never happened to me. It’s possible to find agreement, I think, if you are reasonable.”

Holland concedes that the compromises involved in Hollywood filmmaking encourage directors to adapt respected novels to the screen. “Certainly it’s safer for the director to do that here, because the base is clear; they cannot fool too much with that. Henry James is Henry James. You cannot change the meaning of the story too much. It was done with The Scarlet Letter, and it was a disaster, both critically and with the audience. I think they learned after that.

“It was easier for me to communicate with American studios about this kind of material than about something contemporary,” she adds. “I had a couple of contemporary projects here, but unfortunately we were never able to finance them. And I like to switch from one to the other. It gives me new energy in some way.”

After working on films, like To Kill a Priest and Olivier, Olivier, that were derived from recent events, Holland insists on the verisimilitude of her period dramas. “I’m a realist,” she says. “I believe in the reality. I think that if something is specific, you can make it universal. I also think it’s interesting for the audience. It’s a cultural journey. You buy the ticket and you travel to the past. And it helps the actors to find the truth about the behavior and manners of the characters.

“For James,” she notes, “it was really important, because this was his childhood. His grandmother had a house on Washington Square. For him it has strong sensual and symbolic meanings. Washington Square in the story is a very specific place, but it’s also a very symbolic place. For the father, it’s the place of his accomplishment and pride. For Morris, it’s the object of his desire. And for Catherine it’s a prison. So it’s important to show how it really looked.”

Except for one scene, the film was shot entirely in Baltimore. “There are not so many cities in America where you can really shoot this period,” Holland explains. “Baltimore had the closest locations to New York in the 19th century. I shot practically everything there. The only thing I shot outside was the [Alps], which I shot in north California. The budget was pretty small for a studio movie, and we were not allowed to travel to Europe.”

Catherine is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who might seem an awkward fit with such British performers as Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin, and Maggie Smith. But Holland says that the cast quickly found its way. “Jennifer is certainly not like the normal American actress. Technically, she’s extremely skilled. She’s not just a natural actress. She didn’t come to acting from modeling or rock or something. She matched very well.”

“She’s such a hard-working and honest person,” Holland says. “Sometimes she does too much in terms of preparation. She needs to do it to feel like she’s the character. Because the character plays classical music, she learned the music for four or five months. She spent seven or eight hours a day to do it. By the end of the shooting, there was something broken in her hand. It was an effort to move her hand.”

“It was the same with the corset,” the director continues. “She wanted to feel what the characters of this time felt. During the rehearsal, she put on the corset, but it was probably too tight. After one hour, she threw up, and she was sick for five days. I was afraid that she would be unable to wear it at all.” It was Maggie Smith, “who’s spent half of her life in a corset, because she’s made so many period pieces, who gave her some tricks on how to live with a corset.”

The director recognizes that young people defining themselves is a recurring theme in her work, whether it’s the orphaned heroine of The Secret Garden or the Jewish teenager passing as “Aryan” in Europa, Europa. “It’s kind of a fascinating thing for me,” she says. “What is really interesting for me is the question of identity. Is our truth our social roles, how other people see us and what other people expect of us, or is it something that is really our own?

“That is in some way the story of Europa, Europa and Olivier, Olivier and Washington Square. At the beginning, [Catherine] doesn’t exist. She exists only through the judgment and expectations of her father and aunt. She’s crippled in some way. And when she starts to feel for herself, she opens up and she sees that she has a value. Even though it’s a painful experience, it’s very positive.”

Holland now divides her time between Paris and the United States but expects to return to Poland to shoot her next film, which she recently scripted. “I felt that I would like to tell my story now. A contemporary story, an independent movie, a love story.”

“A big part of the story happens in Poland,” she notes. “I will definitely shoot it there. I would like to make a purely Polish film but don’t have any good ideas. In Poland, I am kind of a celebrity, and they are expecting me to do something”—she makes the noise of a small explosion—”special. This kind of expectation is paralyzing.”

So she has an identity problem in Poland?

“Yes,” she smiles. “Certainly, I’ve had it all my life. But now maybe stronger than before.”—Mark Jenkins