A literate, delicately woven romantic drama that plays itself out
more as a book would than a movie, it comes as no surprise that "Possession"
is based on a novel by A.S. Byatt. Directed by the until-now king
of cynicism Neil LaBute (1997's "In the Company of Men," 1998's "Your
Friends & Neighbors," 2000's "Nurse Betty"), this is easily the most
gentle and hopeful film in LaBute's current repertoire, if far from
his best. At the same time, "Possession" features an excellent quartet
of performances making their way through a minor, but emotionally
gratifying, story about the rewards and sacrifices one must go through
in order to experience the love of a lifetime.
Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American who has come to England
to perform research on his favorite 19th-century poet Randolph Henry
Ash. When he discovers a supposedly unfound love letter written by
Ash to a mistress in the pages of a book, it is the kind of finding
that may very well change the history books. Since Ash was an alleged
monogamist who wrote in his poetry about looking at no other woman
than his wife, this is very big news, indeed. Suspecting that this
secret love was fellow poet Cristabel LaMotte, Roland seeks out the
aid of English scholar and LaMotte enthusiast Maud Bailey (Gwyneth
Paltrow). As Maud and Roland grow closer through their further studies
of these poets, time is turned back to 1859 to capture the personal
exploits of Ash (Jeremy Northam) and LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) as their
uncontrollable love grew deeper and more dangerous.
With a premise that may seem more at home on the BBC network than
the big screen, it is director LaBute and the four central actors
who inject enough passion and depth into the heart of "Possession"
to mostly overcome this obstacle. With two different love stories
evolving in two separate time periods, LaBute uses many clever scene-changing
devices to intercut between them, sometimes in the very same shot.
This ingenious filmic design plays out, rather indelibly, as if ghosts
from the past have begun invading the lives of the present-day protagonists,
and vice versa. Despite the obvious challenge presented in allowing
each romance to live and breath on its own without feeling undernourished,
LaBute and co-screenwriters David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones have
done a respectable job in handling both time periods.
As the afflicted poets of the past, Jeremy Northam (2001's "Gosford
Park") and Jennifer Ehle (2000's "Sunshine") are at a constant uphill
battle in lending complexity to their characters and relationship,
since they have less screen time than their two fellow principles,
and they pull it off amicably. Ehle--an almost creepy dead-ringer
for Meryl Streep--is almost brilliant in her heartrending portrayal
of a woman who is struggling to choose between two forbidden loves,
that of the married Ash and a female painter (Lena Headey).
In the overlapping and, overall, more successful modern-day story,
LaBute-mainstay Aaron Eckhart (2000's "Nurse Betty") and a British-speaking
Gwyneth Paltrow (2001's "Shallow Hal") set off requisite fireworks
together. Eckhart and Paltrow invigorate their scenes with classy
witticism and an uncontrollable attraction bubbling underneath the
surface, allowing their educated characters of Roland and Maud to
slowly develop into fully fleshed-out people. Especially impressive
is the subtle transformation Paltrow goes through from being a dry,
uptight scholar to someone who finally unearths the joy and freedom
in her life to literally and figuratively let her hair down.
"Possession" is genuinely romantic and, although slow-paced, never
boring. In comparison to the challenging past works of Neil LaBute,
however, the film is rather insignificant and meager in the long run.
There are several unforeseen plot developments that enter the lives
of the characters, but, like the movie itself, are never earth-shattering.
LaBute is ultimately capable of much more than "Possession" has to
offer, but he breathes a luscious optimism to the proceedings that
have, until now, been mostly absent on his resume.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman