The Polish director Agnieszka Holland convinced Hollywood bosses to let her film Henry James' novel 'Washington Square' in a style that rejects Tinseltown's rose-tinted formula.
"Don't tell it," Agnieszka Holland whispers conspiratorially in her heavy Eastern European accent. She is not at all sure that any of the Hollywood studio executives who backed her new film, Washington Square, have actually read the Henry James novel on which it is based or indeed the script. "They think it is a romantic comedy like Jane Austen or My Best Friend's Wedding which ends well with marriage and everyone happy," she confides.

In the 1970s, as a filmmaker in communist Poland, Holland was well used to smuggling her art past Government censors. Now, the same skills have helped her deal with the Hollywood apparatchiks. "Studio executives' biggest fear is to protect themselves from failure. In some way, that is psychologically very similar to the bureaucrats."

Holland describes Washington Square as a "a very bitter story about self- discovery". In other words, it is the antithesis of upbeat romantic costume drama. The film starts conventionally enough, with a sweeping camera shot which shows a busy square in Nineteenth Century New York, complete with horse-drawn carriages, ladies with parasols and top-hatted businessmen. But the handsome opening belies what follows. "I wanted to begin like Jane Austen and finish like Bergman," Holland explains, "to go from wide, descriptive exteriors to something introspective and very ascetic. You gradually forget the costumes and the furniture and you just see faces and their suffering."

Holland avoids the melodramatic flourishes which characterised The Heiress, William Wyler's 1949 version of the story with Olivia De Havilland and Montgomery Clift. The mood in Washington Square is dark and sombre throughout. The house where Catherine Sloper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) lives with her father (Albert Finney) seems as oppressive as a mausoleum.

Holland has no qualms at showing the ugliness and awkwardness of her characters. Early on, there is an uncomfortable scene (not in James' novel) in which the young Catherine Sloper, asked to perform for her father, becomes so nervous she wets herself. "I took that scene from my own experiences," Holland confesses, "that idea of the shy, embarrassed child tryingto please but unable to because she is completely blocked."

When it came to casting, what attracted her about Jennifer Jason Leigh was precisely Leigh's awkwardness. Just as Catherine Sloper vexes and displeases her father, Leigh confounds conventional Hollywood wisdom about how a leading actress should behave. "When I spoke with her, I realised she was exactly the character, except that she's more intelligent than Catherine. She's very shy, very plain in some ways, very sweet and very innocent." This sounds like a barbed compliment until one realises how closely Holland herself identifies with James' ungainly but complex and appealing heroine. She originally wanted American actors for all the roles, "but they don't have the training to play period. They don't know how to wear the costumes or how to move or how to say the lines."

The three main supporting characters, therefore, are all played by Brits. Ben Chaplin is the handsome ne'er-do-well who tries to sweet talk his way into the Sloper fortune. Albert Finney is in stern, patriarchal mood as Catherine's censorious father while Maggie Smith bustles around to fine effect as the vain, snobbish and eminently silly Aunt Lavinia. "Maggie," claims Holland, "has the courage to go over the top - to go for caricature - but she also has the instinct to stop before it becomes artificial. She's not afraid of being pathetic or disgusting - and Aunt Lavinia is an aggressively stupid character."

Despite studio pressure to graft on a more conventionally happy ending, Leigh's ugly duckling never blooms into a beautiful swan. What she achieves instead, Holland suggests, is self-knowledge. "In the beginning, she exists only through the expectations, disappointments and judgements of other people. But through her experiences of love, hope, passion and betrayal, she somehow becomes a full character and this slow process I found very appealing."

Ask her about the problems of adapting Henry James, and she uses the same phrase again and again. James is "falsely romantic." He prises away the masks that his dashing lovers, kindly fathers and dotty aunts wear in public and reveals what avaricious and unsympathetic characters they really are. In Washington Square, only Catherine Sloper doesn't seem to be part of the social masquerade. "That's why people at the beginning think she doesn't exist - she's unable to pretend. She's a bitter optimist. If she is able to find herself, it's not in a way that answers the petty bourgeois idea of happiness."

Washington Square features as part of the National Film Theatre's Henry James season, Drama Of Desire, which runs throughout May. Even so, Holland remains sceptical about most screen adaptations of the novelist's work. "He is very hard to translate to the screen. He is such a difficult writer. His storytelling is so ambiguous and tortured - and he describes unspectacular relationships." She says that she would never have had the courage to adapt Portrait Of A Lady or Wings Of A Dove for the screen. "Washington Square has the advantage in that it's an incredibly simple novel - the plot is almost banal."

She first read James in the late 1960s, but in Communist Poland, his work had little relevance. "I found him a not very interesting writer - this American Balzac with his descriptions of the relationships between people and money."

After re-reading his novels a few years ago, she revised her opinions. In the late 1990s, she believes, James' fiction can't help but strike a chord. "We're in the same situation sociologically and in terms of values as in late Victorian society." To put it bluntly, she suggests, we are all obsessed with money and appearances. It is easy to see what she means. The behaviour of characters like Morris (Ben Chaplin) in Washington Square or Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) in Wings Of The Dove or John Malkovich's fiendish, manipulative husband in Portrait Of The Lady isn't so far removed from that of financiers, politicians or social climbers on the make. In present-day Poland, in particular, the obsession with wealth and status is all-consuming.

Holland left the country in 1981 after the suppression of Solidarity and has been living in France ever since. She would like to make films in Poland again but claims that she has lost touch with what is going on there. Besides, she adds, contemporary Polish audiences are no longer interested in the kind of challenging, allegorical films that she, Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda and co. were making in the 1970s. Nowadays, they want entertainment. The only Polish films that compete at the box-office with their Hollywood rivals are the kind of local comedies she claims to detest. Although Holland is a celebrity back home, Polish audiences no longer seem much interested in her style of filmmaking. Holland's last film, Total Eclipse, floundered at the box-office, but has recently enjoyed an extraordinary lease of life on video thanks to the fact that its star, Leonardo Di Caprio (who plays Rimbaud) cites it as one of his most important movies and takes off his clothes to prove the fact.

Holland herself is currently contemplating an adaptation of another novel, but this time one by a contemporary writer, Russell Banks (whose books The Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter have also been filmed recently.) Washington Square wasn't released widely in the US, where it was praised by critics but did only a pinprick's worth of business by comparison with Titanic. Although frustrated by the way it was handled, she appreciates the irony of being able to make such a film in Hollywood in the first place. 'I think it was somebody's caprice to do this movie. Afterwards, they were very nice, but they seemed indifferent somehow.'

There is a special preview screenings of Washington Square on May 17 as part of The National Film Theatre's Henry James Season, which runs from 2-31 May 1998. There is also a Screen Talk with Agnieszka Holland following a special preview at the Barbican on May 17. The film goes on general release on the 29th May.)