*** 1/2 [3 1/2 stars out of 4]
Two couples, one in the present and the other in 19th-century England, find love in this finely crafted film by playwright Neil LaBute.
The most successful part of "Possession" is how it uses prose, not sheer sexuality, to envelop its characters in passion, lust and desire.
Based on the 1990 novel by A.S. Byatt, the movie is not only a poetic look at the discovery of love, but also an enthralling detective story about two academics probing the life and forbidden affair of a 19th-century poet.
Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American research assistant in England who is studying Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), a fictitious poet laureate to Queen Victoria. During his research, he uncovers secret love letters that Ash had been writing to another Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle).
Michell turns to the English researcher Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) to help him trace the meaning of the letters. That leads the two from his London university to Yorkshire and finally France as they slowly peel back the layers that made up the married Ash's hidden love affair with LaMotte.
Meanwhile, Michell, a somewhat timid man who has been wounded by past love, and Bailey, an icy intellectual who also was hurt by relationships, begin to fall for each other as they dig deeper into Ash's controversial love.
The movie, directed by New York playwright, filmmaker and former Brigham Young University theater graduate student Neil LaBute ("Nurse Betty" and "In the Company of Men") again shows his expertise at telling a story carefully and precisely. The narrative carefully zigzags back and forth between present day and 19th-century England, and the love between each couple unfolds slowly and assuredly.
But again, the smartest part of the movie is how it uses language, along with sumptuous photography of the English countryside, to express the flourishing love of its characters. Credit goes to a well-crafted script by "M. Butterfly" playwright David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute, who expertly use the conventions of the detective story to draw us closer to the center of both love stories.
While Paltrow is good as Bailey, the surprise is Eckhart (a fellow BYU student with LaBute) as the well-meaning but slightly scruffy Michell. Acting with such sincerity and confidence, he appears to be on the cusp of becoming a real force in movies. "Possession" just pushes this potential heartthrob one step closer to star status.
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
For love-him-or-hate-him filmmaker Neil LaBute, the romantic drama/mystery "Possession" is about as different as it can get.
For one thing, the film is not peppered with the four-letter words that his screenplays and stage plays usually feature. It's also not sexually violent. And not all of its characters are reprehensible.
Still, it's got LaBute's fingerprints all over it. The movie is rather dialogue heavy, and it examines the dynamics of sexual and other relationships between men and women. Yet it's also the most appealing thing he's ever done. (It may even remind a few viewers of the better Merchant-Ivory productions, or the brief Jane Austen film resurgence of a few years ago.)
But again, it's got its share of problems. Probably the biggest is the casting of LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart as Roland Mitchell, a literary scholar pursuing his studies in Jolly Old England.
Roland has stumbled onto what seems to be evidence of an illicit relationship between revered Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and a less-successful contemporary, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle).
Rather than take his discovery to his mentor, Roland decides to investigate on his own, with help from Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), who's probably the foremost expert on LaMotte -- and an indirect descendant.
As they retrace Ash's and LaMotte's steps, the skittish Roland and frosty Maud fall under the sway of the Victorian poets' written exchanges. They also have to contend with a rival scholar (Toby Stephens) who is trying to beat them to the punch.
As a film director, LaBute continues to improve. This is certainly the best-looking of his movies (a lot of credit must go to cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier for the beautiful, romantic shots of Europe).
The script -- a collaboration between LaBute, David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones -- contains a series of sly literary jokes, and he does a good job building up the passion between Northam's and Ehle's characters (shown in flashbacks and conveyed through voiceovers).
The contemporary part of the film isn't always as memorable. While Paltrow does make a convincing Brit (as she did previously with "Shakespeare in Love" and "Sliding Doors"), the usually dependable Eckhart falters. Though he does get the character's swagger right, his monotone delivery sabotages the relationship between Maud and Roland, which doesn't ring true.
"Possession" is rated PG-13 for scenes of simulated sex (discreet by today's standards), scattered use of profanity and some crude sexual banter, glimpses of nude artwork and brief violence (a scuffle). Running time: 102 minutes.
Brigham Young University graduate Neil LaBute's fourth film, "Possession," marks his entry into the ranks of mature Hollywood directors. His previous films ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "Nurse Betty") have been proficient and intelligent, but now he has combined his keen directorial vision with rich cinematography and lush scenery. Except for the presence of frat-boyish Aaron Eckhart, another BYU grad who has appeared in each of LaBute's films, "Possession" looks every bit like the elegant English romantic drama it attempts to be.
In fairness, Eckhart does well here. His captain-of-the-football-team delivery suits his character, an American named Roland Mitchell who works in London as a research assistant to a professor of Victorian poetry. Roland stumbles across some relatively torrid letters written by Randolph Henry Ash, the 19th-century poet in whom his boss specializes. What's noteworthy is that Ash had a wife to whom he seemed completely devoted. Furthermore, the letters seem to be addressed to the poet Christabel LaMotte, a devout lesbian. If Roland can prove this correspondence -- which no scholar has ever discovered before -- actually took place, it will rock the literary world.
He seeks out Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is far prettier than her frumpy name and dowdy demeanor would suggest. She is a cold fish and an expert in Christabel LaMotte; surely combining these two worlds of knowledge can lead them to the bottom of the mystery. And surely a romance between the two researchers is also in the offing. How can it not be, with musty old manuscripts and gooey love poems at the center of their work?
Based on A.S. Byatt's novel and adapted by LaBute, David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, the story plays out much like a mystery, with Roland and Maud finding clues and following leads that often materialize too easily and conveniently.
It is all interspersed with scenes from Ash's and LaMotte's lives, those roles being played by Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle, respectively. A period piece only about those two would have been grand to watch, especially as played by such accomplished actors. Paltrow and Eckhart are very good as the modern-day researchers, but their romance seems obligatory. There is no indication that the 150-year-old affair they're studying led them, inspired them or brought them together; they just wound up together, the same as they would if they'd been working on any other project (at least in the world of movies, where co-workers of the opposite sex always fall in love).
Considering this is a film about people doing research, it's amazing how well LaBute maintains the audience's attention. But the old, dead romance is far more interesting than the present-day one, with more emotional impact and dramatic weight. However, the gorgeous English countrysides and personable, slyly witty performances make this a worthwhile endeavor, regardless of which half of the movie you feel more attached to.
Our Rating: ** 1/2 [2 1/2 stars out of 4]
One thing I've noticed about a Neil LaBute film is that it usually carries with it a great deal of passion -- whether for a career, a love interest or a raging obsession.
In "Possession," I was surprised to find that most of the passion came from the unexpected -- and where I thought passion would be, it wasn't.
That left me feeling, well, dispossessed.
Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) plays the rugged, brash American doing a fellowship in England on Victorian poetry.
He discovers some previously unknown love letters in the writings of Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), a respected poet of that earlier era. It was widely considered that Ash was a devoted husband, so any hint of scandal would be noteworthy.
Being the "ugly American," Roland simply steals the letters from the British archives and begins to investigate whether Ash had taken a mistress.
His research reveals the name of Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), who was a poetess of some repute. No one, until now, had ever found any kind of connection between the two.
The leading expert on LaMotte's writings is Dr. Maude Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). She quickly dismisses this silly Yank's theory of a secret love affair, but slowly realizes its intriguing potential.
So off they go, in search of more clues, and suddenly, we are taken back in time to see the story unfold for ourselves.
Admittedly, LaBute does a masterful job weaving the simultaneous stories together, but eventually it was the Victorians who won me over and the saga of Roland and Maude that left me cold.
Northam and Ehle sizzled on screen despite their characters" best efforts to avoid impropriety. Even their furtive glances burned with desire (sorry for the Harlequin cliche).
Meanwhile, Paltrow and Eckhart looked more like brother and sister -- and any efforts at romance seemed forced, almost creepy.
Now, I know Paltrow can do "hot and bothered" -- we saw it in "Shakespeare in Love." So, maybe it was Eckhart? Hard to tell.
Add to that a couple of "stray bullets" at the end meant to be clever plot twists, and I've got to admit I was less than enthused with "Possession."
I'm thinking: Lose the modern-day angle and stick with the period story -- and I would have been much happier.
POSSESSION RELEASED ON VIDEO/DVD: Neil LaBute's 4th feature film, "Possession," was released on video and DVD on Tuesday, 11 February 2003.
As probably everyone know, "Possession" is LaBute's adaptation of the immensely popular same-titled novel by A.S. Byatt. The story opens with Roland (Aaron Eckhart) discovering previously unknown letters written by the subject of his studies, renowned (fictional) poet Randolph Henry Ash, who is famous for his life-long devotion to his wife and his writing dedicated to her. The letters were written to another 19th century English poet, Christabel LaMotte, who was thought to have been committed to her relationship with a female painter. Roland seeks out the preeminent authority on LaMotte to investigate these findings further. The researcher is an icy British academic played by Gwenyth Paltrow. They investigate the history-changing connection between Ash and LaMotte, retracing a trip the two poets took together. The barriers between the researchers melt and their relationship mirrors in some ways the relationship between their research subjects. This is both a mystery and a love story. Scenes of the 19th century are interspersed with the contemporary story of the researchers learning about it. One of LaBute's greatest accomplishments with "Possession" is the fact that this acclaimed but dense and complicated book is rendered quite understandable on film.
"Possession" is an impressive and accomplished work of cinematic art. Its production budget was a reported $25 million, and this shows up on the screen. The cinematography is elegant and appropriate. The acting is world-class. Academy Award-winner Gwenyth Paltrow stars and her talent is matched by LaBute's fellow BYU graduate Aaron Eckhart. The movie was filmed on location in England, much of it in real locations specified in the book, such as the London Library.
This is not necessarily an "easy" movie to get into. It starts off slow and it never serves up a car chase or explosion. It really is about poets and literary research. But I thoroughly enjoyed it and will certainly watch it again. This is an amazingly romantic movie. It is sincere, not schmaltzy. It is nice that the movie is not shallow or hollow. Although not overtly religious, there are are a number of intriguing themes and ideas. After some slow going in the opening scenes my interest was really engaged and I was drawn into the parallel love stories. There is no question that the quality of filmmaking here is higher than can be found in any LDS Cinema movies, even Dutcher's "Brigham City" or Davis' "The Other Side of Heaven." This is not only because of the movie's $25 million production budget. LaBute is a very talented director and screenwriter, but this isn't the only reason. The source material was top-rate (Byatt's book won the Booker Prize). Another major factor is the talent of the two leads, Gwenyth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. With seeming ease they manage to make wonderful and watchable characters out of two literary researchers.
Although an all-around excellent movie, I can see in "Possession" the limitations that prevented it from garnering more critics' awards than it did. Although a wide-open film set in various locales in England and France, it does lack the sheer scope of movies such as "The Twin Towars" and "Gangs of New York." But I would heartily recommend this to fans of Latter-day Saint filmmaking, not because its themes are necessarily specific to our interests, but because the level of LaBute's craft is something to relish and aspire to.
CONTENT: The following paragraphs are about offensive content to audiences who prefer LDS Cinema and videos available at Deseret Book. This is for information only, and is not meant to imply that such material is appropriate or inappropriate.
"Possession" is rated PG-13, and is LaBute's first movie that is not rated R. For Latter-day Saints who do not watch R-rated movies, "Possession" can serve as a great introduction to the most successful Latter-day Saint director of live action dramatic films working today.
There is little that would be considered offensive, but there are a few things to note. The only violence is some scuffling between English professors. The characters are poets and academics and the dialogue is lofty and intelligent. There is virtually no vulgarity except for one "sh--" word. I did not recall any profanity, but ScreenIt.com indicates a total of 12 profane exclamations, along the lines of "For God's sake" and "Jesus." ScreenIt.com also points out 1 "damn" and 1 "hell." Relatively mild compared to most movies, and not even on the same scale as LaBute's previous movies. There is no nudity.
The potentially most offensive aspects of "Possesion" are the fact that one character is a lesbian, and a love scene between the historical characters of Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Blanche, the lesbian character, is Christabel LaMotte's companion. There is never anything shown happening between them beyond holding hands. The key plot point in the movie is that Christabel had an affair with a man, Randolph Henry Ash. Christabel is loyal to her female friend and companion until Blanche commits suicide, but her true love is Ash. LaBute displays a realistic understanding of many aspects of human nature and clearly doesn't subscribe to some of the silly, politically correct notions of lesbianism that are quite popular. But "Possession" is also a fairly faithful adaptation of Byatt's book, so it's not like LaBute went out of his way to contrive an anti-lesbian plot. The characters are simply realistically portrayed people and there's no agenda behind the plot.
The scene most likely to keep "Possession" off of Deseret Book shelves is the love scene between Ash and LaMotte. LaBotte is fully covered wearing an ankle-length nightgown, but Ash appears to be wearing nothing, although he is obscured by LaMotte and blankets. It's fairly brief and discreet, but definitely earns the movie a PG-13 rating. As for Aaron Eckhart and Gwenyth Paltrow... I don't think there's anything between them that couldn't be done in a slightly daring BYU-produced play. There is not even any sex implied between them during the course of the movie.
In summary, this isn't a family movie, but it isn't meant to be one. I have no concern that kids will watch the movie and see something I wouldn't want them to, because no kid will last past the first 20 minutes of library research, poetry auctions, and persuasive academia.