USA, 2002. Rated PG-13. 102 minutes.

Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Aaron Eckhart, Lena Headey, Holly Aird, Toby Stephens, Trevor Eve, Tom Hickey, Georgia Mackenzie, Tom Hollander
Writers: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones & Neil LaBute, based on the novel Possession--A Romance, by A.S. Byatt
Music: Gabriel Yared
Cinematographer: Jean-Yves Escoffier
Producers: Barry Levinson, Paula Weinstein
Director: Neil LaBute


Grade: C Review by Dominic Varle

A  frequent criticism of the A.S. Byatt novel from which Possession, the underwhelming new film from director Neil LaBute, is adapted is that at five hundred pages it is about one hundred and fifty pages too long--a wordy book about words, too arcane to garner popular appeal. Yet the novel's erudition did not prevent it from moving at the pace of a thriller. Byatt's exquisite extrapolation of the mechanics of a literary Victorian love affair juxtaposed with the mechanics of contemporary literary research won both critical and popular acclaim. But how to adapt for film a book that was more than the sum of its parts, a literary page-turner following two pairs of characters, a century apart, each inching towards romantic communion?

Whilst researching Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart) accidentally discovers a draft of letter by Ash that may have been intended for 'fairy poetess' Christabel La Motte (Jennifer Ehle). Joining forces with La Motte scholar Maud Bailey (Gwynneth Paltrow), they uncover a love affair between the two Victorian writers, previously unsuspected by the legion scholars that catalog and parse the minutiae of each writer's life. One step ahead of rival Ash devotees, Roland and Maud piece together the chronology and substance of the affair, realizing that their discovery will turn the established interpretations of Ash and La Motte's work upside down. Flashbacks show us Ash and La Motte as they tentatively forge their illicit relationship, first by letter, then in person in London, Yorkshire, and France.

Initially distrusting each other, Roland and Maud unwittingly mirror prejudices inherited from their historical subjects as the film suggests several parallels between the two pairs of protagonists. The misogynist Ash and proto-feminist La Motte each have to cede intellectual ground to pursue their love; similarly, Roland and Maud must set aside their preconceptions to pursue the truth. Ehle and Northam in the better half of the filmThe contemporary pursuit of the literary and literal truth echoes Ash and La Motte's romantic pursuit of each other, while all four are troubled by their responsibilities--the contemporaries to academic convention, the Victorians to the convention of domestic faithfulness. Neil LaBute's direction is smooth as he pans between the Victorian and the contemporary storylines, and Gabriel Yared's (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley) restrained soundtrack is free as ever of obvious emotional cues.

Yet something is missing. In two of his earlier films, In the Company of Men and Our Friends and Neighbors, LaBute examined the nature of human relations with uncomfortable accuracy. In contrast, this screenplay (co-adapted with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones) fails to consistently deliver dialogue with his customary sharp verisimilitude, and often does little more than allude to the motivations and personalities of the characters. While retaining the book's essential narrative, LaBute has truncated the time spent on the La Motte/Ash story. Cursory characterizations of Ash and La Motte, defined by their circumstances rather than their personalities, result. This is unfortunate, as Ash and La Motte's lives and motivations are far more interesting than those of Roland and Maud, who are dull in comparison. Ash, quite the Renaissance man, married young to a frigid but devoted helpmeet, and skeptical of La Motte's Spiritualist tendencies, is a character worthy of further screen time. The character of La Motte, a Pre-Raphaelite poetess, co-habiting with an increasingly clingy companion, could equally have been more deeply portrayed to greater overall effect.

As Roland and Maud follow in Ash and La Motte's footsteps, reciting to each other the correspondence they unearth, the unconvincing Eckhart and Paltrow barely register the excitement that would surely be experienced by historians so devoted to their subjects. The movie doesn't even tell us why Roland and Maud find Ash and La Motte sufficiently fascinating to make careers out of studying them. A generous assessment of La Bute's adaptation would suggest that, instead of taking his usual caustic approach to modern relationships, he has opted for a more subtle tack. In contrasting the richness of the lives and interests of the Victorians with the blandly post-modern Roland and Maud, there is an implication that living life vicariously is no match for the real thing. "We're so modern," laments the wan Paltrow at one point, making a mockery of the movie's misleading tag line: "The past will connect them. The passion will possess them." More often than not, her delivery is insipid and simply disinterested. Paltrow's vapid capitulation to Eckhart's half-hearted overtures contrasts poorly with Ehle's strikingly assertive La Motte, determined to meet Ash on equal terms.

A braver approach to this adaptation would have leaned more heavily on the period drama at the expense of the modern sleuthing, and given the relationships the emotional substance that the romantic elements needed to convince. Perhaps the world has had enough of slowly paced costume drama? The BBC's hugely successful Pride and Prejudice miniseries (also starring Ehle) suggests not, and either a longer film or a mini-series would have proved a better format to do justice to Byatt's Possession. Despite such rich source material, this adaptation, running at just 102 minutes, has sacrificed the romance of the story at the altar of dramatic expediency.

Review © September 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images 2002 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.

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