Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 15, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Literary Remains

Readers and moviegoers can treasure an extraordinary Possession.

By KRISTIAN LIN

A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession would be a challenge for any filmmaker to adapt. Much of the story is taken up with library research, not a subject brimming with cinematic possibilities. It’s an even more unlikely project for Neil LaBute, worlds away from any of his previous movies. Yet this film is as rapturous and heart-stopping as his In the Company of Men was scabrous and hate-filled.This decorously middlebrow romance illustrates his amazing depth as an artist.

Like the novel, the movie shifts back and forth between storylines that take place in different centuries. Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is stuck in a dead-end job as a research assistant at a British university when he makes an incendiary discovery while thumbing through a London library’s copy of a book formerly owned by celebrated Victorian poet Randolph Ash (Jeremy Northam). Ash is believed to have had an exemplary marriage, but stuck between the book’s pages is what appears to be a passionate love letter from Ash to an obscure poet named Christabel La Motte (Jennifer Ehle). Proof of an affair would force the rewriting of literary history, and Roland’s afraid of someone else taking credit for his find. He can’t go it alone, though, so he contacts Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a gender studies professor at another college who has a corner on La Motte scholarship and, not incidentally, is the poetess’ niece three times removed.

This movie combines its romance with a detective story, as Roland and Maud’s search turns into a race across England and France against a group of more prestigious, better-funded professors who discover what’s up. For viewers who aren’t literary scholars, LaBute makes the stakes clear. His feel for the insularity and backbiting of academia creates a competitive atmosphere in which people eavesdrop, read each other’s mail, and occasionally steal to gain an edge (those are the good guys, by the way). It’s all for the thrill of discovery, which is powerfully conveyed in a scene where Maud uses one of Christabel’s poems to lead her to a hidden trove of letters — the director has a great sense of the occasion’s momentousness. As Roland and Maud retrace a journey taken by Ash and Christabel in 1859, the film juxtaposes scenes of the two pairs taking place in the same locations. LaBute can’t duplicate Byatt’s virtuoso writing (her imitations of a broad range of contemporary and antiquated styles is one of the book’s chief merits), but techniques like these bring a far-flung plot with many disparate elements compellingly into focus. The story’s breadth gives LaBute’s production team a chance to show its versatility — Jean-Yves Escoffier’s classy photography and Gabriel Yared’s tremulous score deserve mention.

LaBute does make heavy use of Byatt’s prose to render the 19th-century romance, which makes sense because letters are how the present-day scholars learn about it. Their missives to each other are the words of well-read people who are freaked out — in a Victorian way — by their consuming passion for each other. Roland and Maud are freaked out too, not least because the romance ended badly, catastrophically damaging Christabel’s lesbian relationship with an artist (Lena Headey).

They have other issues, as well, because Ash and Christabel’s affair reflects their own feelings for each other. They fall in love, but their research makes them face uncomfortable truths about themselves. Roland tends to sabotage his own relationships, and Maud’s afraid to get too close to people (her own boyfriend uses the word “ballbreaker” to describe her to Roland — not a good sign). They’re both painfully aware of their shortcomings, but as they turn up more about the poets’ hidden lives, their defense mechanisms fall away. The modern-day lovers are more vivid, perhaps because LaBute’s such a man of our time. Crucially, he and co-writers David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones get — and don’t overstate — Byatt’s central irony, which is that Roland and Maud’s 21st-century hang-ups make them more repressed than the Victorians.

The lead actors work spectacularly to make the film more than an academic exercise. The movie Americanizes the character of Roland basically so that Eckhart can play him. This is his first conventionally romantic part for LaBute, and he slides right into it with a more cultured version of the regular-guy charm that he showed in Erin Brockovich. Still, it’s Paltrow who delivers the film’s most moving performance. She’s at her frostiest playing the initial scenes (you can almost understand the “ballbreaker” comment), but then the story takes her through all the emotional states that we go through: enthralled, troubled, and finally overwhelmed when the complicated truth comes to light about these long-dead writers. Her sensitively tuned performance will strike a chord with anyone who’s ever loved literature or history; these things matter so much to Maud and us because they provide continuity with our past and give us visions of people whose lives we’d like to emulate. Possession runs only 102 minutes, but it’s broader in scope and more profound in its emotions than many three-hour epics. It’ll be a great year if we see many more films better than this ravishing and stunningly powerful work.


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