directed by Neil LaBute
(Warner Brothers, 2002)
In Neil LaBute's latest film, the director of In the Company of Men tackles the words of A.S. Byatt, winner of the 1990 Booker Prize, the United Kingdom's highest writing honor.
That award, for the novel Possession, has been adapted by LaBute, Laura Jones and David Henry Hwang into a star vehicle by the same name. Featuring Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow, BAFTA and Tony Award winner Jennifer Ehle, Olivier Award winner Jeremy Northam and Aaron Eckhart, Possession bears a lot of flash and more than a little heat, but a plot shrunken and jumbled from its novel namesake.
It's too bad, because when the lush Possession is working, the romance makes the best of its actors.
Possession links modern and Victorian England, academics and poets, a shared love of words and a deliberate use of those words that's sensual and seductive.
The grand mystery surrounds Randolph Henry Ash (Northam), a Victorian-era poet who's always been revered as a paragon of faithfulness. Researcher Roland Michell (Eckhart), working in present-day London, unearths letters from Ash that don't seem to be written with Ash's wife in mind.
They're not. They're dedicated to Christabel LaMotte (Ehle, who positively glows), a spinster poet whose meeting with Ash at a dinner party soon turns to cerebral, then physical, longing.
To prove the letters' provenance, Michell turns to Maud Bailey (Paltrow), a LaMotte expert and feminist professor. The cat-and-mouse flirtation that ensues mirrors the blossoming devotion of LaMotte and Ash.
It's here that Possession the film starts to part from the novel, excising main characters (including Michell's live-in girlfriend and a lesbian admirer of Maud's) that would amplify the parallel Victorian//modern loves, pushing forward the mystery and glossing over the ivy-tower competition that drives the novel.
What's left seems simultaneously oversimplified and rushed, with the more leisurely pace of the Victorian scenes clashing with the mad dash of modern England. The novel's transition was smoother, in part because all the main characters there live mostly in their minds and in their writing. Since LaBute refrains from much voice-over, our ability to follow the characters' chain of thought is short-cut into unexplained actions and leaps of dialogue.
What had been a tribute to love becomes an Agatha Christie-like dash around the Yorkshire countryside; what had been a deliberate academic reasoning becomes compressed into amateur sleuthing.
What still works is the use of words as a substitute for sex, a love of words that is, of itself, seductive. These are people who live for words, who are devoted to the words of others. The treasured letters of one set of lovers provide a way for another pair to overcome fear.
And, in the end, it's great to look at, with Northam, Eckhart, Paltrow, Ehle and the North Yorkshire scenery.
It all doesn't quite fuse into a whole. But it is a switch to see a movie in which poetry sometimes holds its own with the stars.