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Possession (PG-13)
USA Films
Official Site
Director: Neil LaBute
Producers: Barry Levinson, Paula Weinstein
Written by: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil LaBute; from the novel by A.S. Byatt
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Northam, Lena Headey, Toby Stephens


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 or forthrightness.

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?) results.

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.

—Roxanne Bogucka


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

It’s worth a full-price ticket.

It’s worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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