Despite its pedigree—the source novel won the Booker Prize
in 1990—Possession is pretty ordinary. It’s all dolled
up to be a mystery-slash-romance (in every sense of the word)
featuring two intellectual equals in harness. Think of when
Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane threw in together to solve
mysteries. Instead, we get two academics with some high-falutin’
specializations, behaving very much like they suffer from
terminal adolescence. On the plus side, we also get two Victorian
writers who are a treat to watch.
LaBute (In The Company Of Men, Your Friends And
Neighbors) struck me as an odd choice of director for
this project. The tenderer sensibilities and feelings are
not what spring to mind when I think of him, though I suppose
he watches as much A&E as the rest of us. Maybe more,
in fact, since this production seemed tailor-made for the
classy cable channel.
Roland (Eckhart) is a penniless post-doc whose dim
prospects brighten when he has the good fortune to discover
an original letter by Randolph Henry Ash (Northam),
the poet he studies, inside a book in the London Library.
The letter is full of feeling and addresses an unnamed lady,
tantalizing since Ash is thought to have been a model husband.
Roland steals the letter. What kind of scholar steals
an original document from a library? Not a sound one, and
I’m afraid not one who’ll arouse my sympathies. Right from
the start, I detested Roland. And even though he’s “our hero,”
he remains pretty smarmy throughout the story.
Here’s the major failing of the film. (I was so disappointed
with this movie that I left the theater and went directly
to my public library to check out a copy of A.S. Byatt’s
novel.) LaBute & Co. don’t explain well enough; in fact,
they barely explain at all. Why is Roland stealing this letter?
Does he have any qualms about this act? Is he driven by a
passion to possess? A passion to further his professional
career? Or a passionate interest in his subject? Yes, I know:
Books can be long and expository, but movies generally need
short and to the point. In order to get to the point, LaBute
tells us a lot of things—that Maud (Paltrow), the fellow
sleuth-scholar Roland throws in with, is a ballbreaker; that
Christabel LaMotte (Ehle), the lady to whom Ash wrote,
has a formidable mind and forceful opinions. I didn’t see
any overt ballbreaking, nor any dazzling displays of intellect
I did see a very golden, freckled Paltrow, doing the English
accent thing again, and a perpetually unshaven Eckhart, hopelessly
miscast as the poetry scholar. I must say my eyes feasted
on Jeremy Northam (Gosford Park, Enigma, The Winslow
Boy, An Ideal Husband, Emma), a fabulous actor born to
wear period costumes, and wear them well. He has dark Olivier
looks, only much lovelier. Jennifer Ehle (A&E’s “Pride
and Prejudice”) resembles Meryl Streep, a resemblance
that seems played up here. That’s too bad, because it’ll put
you in mind of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where
Streep and Jeremy Irons did this sort of thing much
better 20-odd years ago.
And though I haven’t finished this fat book, it didn’t take
long to discover other missteps. The movie Roland is your
stereotypical Yank, whose brash Americanism clashes with the
excessively prim and priggish Britishness around him. Oh ye
gods and little fishes! That’s a pretty tired device to trot
out. Probably why Byatt’s Roland was a Brit, from a lower-middle-class
background, providing a much more interesting and informative
clash—that of class—than what the movie’s writers cooked up.
At any rate, Ash and LaMotte meet at one of those breakfast/discussions
that people with classical educations were always attending
in the 19th century. He pursues her, through letters that
she does not share with her partner, Blanche (Headey),
thus fanning the flames of jealousy at home. Eventually their
passion leads Ash and LaMotte to take a month’s holiday together,
betraying from their respective partners and consummating
their love. With predictable (well, maybe not to Victorians?)
All the while, modern-day sleuths Roland and Maud are hot
on the trail of evidence that sufficiently documents the existence
of a connection between Ash and LaMotte. And in between purloining
letters in various libraries and such, Roland and Maud keep
taking two steps forward and one step back in the dance of
mutual attraction. This dance is tedious in the extreme, excessively
dull compared to the more interesting Victorians, who didn’t
have to get their mouths around dreadful pillow-talk like,
“all relationships are doomed.” This type of puerile pronouncement
from a grownup scholar and student of human nature? Please!
The filmmakers sprinkled this confection with the unpardonable
scenario involving the mentally unbalanced lesbian; a little
soft-core-lite with the lovely Brits, to keep our blood flowing;
and an unsavory display of Roland’s equally larcenous academic
colleagues and the vicious feeding frenzy over new discoveries.
In the end, it comes down to thieves chasing thieves, with
the ultimate theft being that of your time and money. Read
the book. Rent the video when it comes out, and fast-forward
to the Jeremy Northam parts.