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Possession (2002)
Articles and Reviews
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By PHILIP WUNTCH / The Dallas Morning News

Translating A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel Possession: A Romance to cinematic terms would prove daunting for any director. But placing the multilayered romance in the hands of Neil LaBute seems, as genteel Victorian novelists might say, fraught with peril.

Mr. LaBute's first two films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, were as far from gentility as language, characterization and plotting can get. His most recent fare, Nurse Betty, revealed a modicum of compassion camouflaged by hard crusts of cynicism.

But Possession boasts pristine Gwyneth Paltrow and ethereal Jennifer Ehle as its central women, with a surprisingly refined Aaron Eckhart and an elegant Jeremy Northam as their male partners. All that's lacking is Emma Thompson to make it exclusive Merchant-Ivory country.

Mr. LaBute's condensed version of Possession doesn't allow the novel's in-depth characters or its literary flourishes. But on its own cinematic terms, it successfully showcases the passions of both the director and novelist Byatt. Their love of language is evident; it's refreshing to realize that dialogue needn't be profane to engage Mr. LaBute. And the dual story lines accommodate their fascination for difficult relationships.

Possession lovingly follows two such knotty pairings, one contemporary and one in the Victorian era.

Ms. Paltrow plays prim Maud Bailey, a British academic who has fervently researched the life of Christabel LaMotte (Ms. Ehle), a Victorian poet and early feminist. Mr. Eckhart, photographed as if for a Vanity Fair cover, plays Roland Michell, a comparatively casual Yank (changed from a Brit in the novel) with a fellowship to study Randolph Henry Ash (Mr. Northam), poet laureate to Queen Victoria. (Those who raise a pedant's eyebrow at the names of Ash and LaMotte should be reassured that these characters are strictly figments of author Byatt's imagination.)

Jaunty Roland discovers a love letter written by Ash to Christabel. When he presents his finding to rigid Maud, she is alternately suspicious, amused and nonplussed. Ash was famous for his happy marriage, and Christabel was an acknowledged lesbian, devoted to longtime companion Blanche (Lena Headey).

The film alternates between the Victorian poets' secret tryst and the more prosaic pairing of the modern researchers. It's fairly obvious that Roland will melt Maud's coldness and that Maud will stabilize Roland, but the performances are generally persuasive.

Ms. Paltrow boasts an impeccable British accent and gives an impeccable performance. Impeccable, of course, is hardly our vernacular's most exciting adjective, but it suits Lady Gwyneth. There's still the suspicion that the Oscar-winning star became an icon too early in her career, but she definitely gives Maud some flavor without softening her starchiness.

Mr. Eckhart apparently realizes that Possession allows him the first romantic-leading-man role of his career and has the good sense not to blatantly push his charm. Less successful is Mr. Northam, who never captures the torment that Ash's adultery caused him.

Ms. Ehle, Tony-winning daughter of superb actress Rosemary Harris, suggests virtually all of Christabel's emotional longings, and Ms. Headey brings compassion to the role of the Victorian romance's true casualty.

Possession was first scheduled for release in the fall of 2001, and it sometimes shows the rupture of constant re-editing. You want to know more of the passions harbored by these frightfully civilized people. But as a film version of an admired, multilayered best-seller, it fares better than Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Published in The Dallas Morning News: 08.16.02

Wolf Entertainment Guide

by William Wolf


Director Neil LaBute had better be careful or he'll ruin his reputation for making movies with a nasty edge. His "Possession" is a lovely, romantic, lyrical and literary-minded double love story spanning two different time frames, one contemporary the other Victorian. Cast to perfection, it is all about falling in love, fears about commitment, secret passions, professorial sleuthing, and sneaky unethical competition. The astute screenplay is by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute based on the Booker Prize novel by A.S. Byatt. Here is a film with wit and intelligence to go with its serving of scholarship entwined with romance.

The set-up is dandy. Gwyneth Paltrow has never been more beautiful on screen than in her persuasive portrayal of Maud Bailey, and English scholar in the throes of research on a Victorian woman poet. Aaron Eckhart gives another appealing performance as Roland Mitchell, an American on a fellowship in London devoted to studying a renowned poet of the Victorian era. The two meet, and when chance leads to discovery of hitherto unknown love letters that would seem to be between their two research subjects, the stage is set for a joint scholarly adventure in which they must travel together.

Both Victorian poets are clever fictional concoctions. Christabel LaMotte, portrayed with spirit and unleashed passion by Jennifer Ehle, is an independent-minded woman with another woman as her lover, yet suddenly falling in love with poet Randolph Henry Ash, played by handsome Jeremy Northam. Since the married Ash, poet laureate to Queen Victoria, is known for poems dedicated to his wife, the letters indicating that an illicit affair might have taken place would hold great interest for scholars. Proof would be even better.

The film switches back and forth between the researchers and past events uncovered in their quest. Meanwhile, an arrogant rival professor gets wind of what's going on and sets out with a co-conspirator on a path to secretly trump the investigation and get the glory and possible financial rewards for himself.

Maud and Roland, thrown into proximity, are intellectually and emotionally stimulated by the example of the poets. However, Roland is wary of commitment and Maud is wary of someone wary of commitment. Can these colleagues eventually find love of their own?

The story is told elegantly with the maximizing of the settings, Victorian and contemporary, and the double layer of romantic entanglements, coupled with attention to literature and the university world, is engrossing. Sometimes the period switches become a bit excessive, but never enough to outweigh the enjoyment of watching a film that's different and so well performed. As noted, this is new territory for LaBute and he conquers it admirably. A Focus Features release.

Fantastica Daily

Possession (2002)

2 1/2 stars [out or 4]

Review by Staci Layne Wilson

Possession is Elizabeth Barrett Browning meets Nancy Drew, and it's directed by... Neil LaBute. Hmm. The director, whose previous credits include the decidedly unromantic, unmysterious In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, takes on the flowery novel by A.S. Byatt (who also wrote Angels & Insects), which is about a pair of modern-day literary sleuths who unearth the amorous secret of two Victorian poets only to find themselves falling under their passionate spell.

Aaron Eckhart, a LaBute staple, stars as Roland Michell, an ambitious, enthusiastic American scholar in England who is studying the life and work of the poet laureate for Queen Victoria, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). As luck would have it, he stumbles upon some secret love letters that appear to have been exchanged between the married Ash and another poet, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), who was a known lesbian. Michell joins forces with a frosty, patrician litterateur -- tight chignon, turtleneck and all -- Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), to investigate the possibility that the two poets were, indeed, lovers.

In Possession, you get two romantic stories for the price of one. LaBute does a great job of segueing back and forth between now and Victorian times, following both couples into their respective falls in love. Everything about this movie is lush, richly painted, and extremely beautiful. The period costumes and sets are sumptuously gorgeous, and the modern day English countryside and quaint waterfront inns are lovingly photographed by cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier.

I must confess, Neil LaBute isn't my favorite director. I couldn't watch all of In the Company of Men, and barely made it through Your Friends and Neighbors. I kind of liked Nurse Betty, but I found the mix of screwball comedy and extreme violence too uneasy. I'm glad I didn't know LaBute was the director of Possession until the end credits rolled, otherwise I may have had preconceived notions. Overall, I liked Possession, and as far as I'm concerned, it's LaBute's best to date.

However, I did find the romantic aspects a bit overwrought -- this is definitely a movie for diehard, Kleenex-clutching romantics -- and, as with Nurse Betty, I felt the comedic elements were a bit forced and didn't quite fit in with the story.Still, the parallel tales were compelling, I loved how the mystery unfolded (too easily perhaps, but that was all right), and the actors were all a pleasure to watch.

If you're looking for a little romance between your XXX action and your Signs aliens this summer, Possession is just the ticket.

Los Angeles Daily News

Published: Friday, August 16, 2002

Old, new love in 'Possession'

By Glenn Whipp
Film Critic

*** [3 stars out of 4]

In a nutshell: Neil LaBute goes soft in the head (and the heart) in this amiable romance about two academics researching a past love. Neil LaBute believes in love? That's the most shocking revelation in "Possession," an amiably melodramatic adaptation of A.S. Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel about a pair of modern academics who uncover a love affair between two 19th-century poets.

LaBute is best-known for his first two films, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," a savage one-two punch e way men and women relate to each other.

Byatt's book, which contrasts modern love with that of the bodice-ripping past, seems ripe for further cynical explorations, which makes it all the more surprising that LaBute keeps his skepticism at bay. For once, a little more scorn would have been welcome.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart play Maud Bailey and Roland Michell, the world's most attractive scholars. They meet after Eckhart's egghead finds a couple of racy (at least for the time) letters written by famed poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). Ash, the (fictitious) poet laureate to Queen Victoria, had been celebrated for his singular devotion to his wife, so these missives are quite the discovery.

And quite the mystery. Roland suspects Ash was in love with Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a lesser-known poet at the time, and famously a lesbian. Roland takes the letters to Paltrow's Maud, a gender studies academic who's related to LaMotte.

Maud thinks Roland's ideas are preposterous, but she's quickly caught up in the Nancy Drew spirit of the whole sleuthing enterprise. Soon they're off traipsing around the English countryside, retracing the steps of the lovers and falling in love themselves.

LaBute, who adapted Byatt's book with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, proves adept at cutting between the two love affairs. But he loses his footing when he tries to contrast the two love affairs in ways that go beyond the superficial. And when Roland earnestly tells Maud, "I want to see if there's an us in you and me," you can see the movie deflate before your eyes.

Still, at least up to that point, "Possession" is a pleasant enough romance with intellectual underpinnings, the kind of movie that entertains even as it turns maddeningly predictable. If that's the l expect from LaBute, well, maybe he's having the last laugh.

By: John Venable

"If you love reading and/or poetry, then by all means check it out. You'll probably love it." [More. The webpage displays the text in graphic/non-ascii format, so it could not be copied easily.]

Grade alternated between 7 and 8 out of 10 [i.e.: 7.5]

Parallel love stories

Gary Thompson
Philadelphia Daily News

Published: Friday, August 16, 2002

A few months ago, a scholar digging through papers at a New York museum found an anonymous sketch that he immediately recognized as the work of Michelangelo.

He didn't pocket the sketch, but he probably could have - worth keeping in mind if you want to buy the premise of "Possession," about a scholar who makes a major literary find in the papers of a Victorian poet.

The fictitious poet, invented for the purposes of this story, is Randolph Ash, a laureate for Queen Victoria, not especially gifted, remembered mostly for the poems of love and devotion he wrote to his wife.

As the story opens, England is celebrating Ash's 150th anniversary, and a professor's assistant named Roland (Aaron Eckhart) is paging through some of Ash's old letters, answering trivia questions for blue-haired ladies.

He stumbles on what appears to be a mash note to a woman not Ash's wife - incendiary stuff, particularly in the context of the museum's celebration, which trumpets Ash as the lyrical voice of marital fidelity.

The brash, ambitious (and not, incidentally, American) young man decides to keep the letter. Steal it, actually. And conduct his own career-making investigation, which leads him to conclude that Ash wrote the love letter to another poet, Christabel La.Motte, a woman who was famous (or infamous) for romantic devotion of another kind (sorry for being roundabout, but if you want to know, you have to see the movie, in which case it's better that you don't).

He consults with the leading authority on LaMotte, the notoriously uptight Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow, in a radical reversal of her Dixie Normous cameo in "Goldmember"), and together they begin looking through the lives of their respective dead poets for evidence of an affair.

At this point, "Possession" separates nicely into parallel movies - the Victorian poets (Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle) falling in love, the modern-day academics doing the same.

Assembling these two tales into a cohesive whole is none other than writer/director Neil LaBute (adapting A.S. Byatt), best known for the misanthropic "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors," and, on Broadway, "The Shape of Things."

Not since David Mamet tackled "The Winslow Boy" has a writer/director changed his stripes so radically, and I have to say, it's nice to see LaBute working in this idiom, wading through flowery Victorian language, and depicting the wary pairing off of men and women in a way that doesn't include pistol-whipping or anal rape.

Still, stripped almost entirely of such tools as nudity, profanity and violence, LaBute does manage to make a few points about modern man and his problematic quest for human connection.

By contrasting a Victorian couple with a contemporary one, he's able to make interesting comparisons - what kept people apart a century ago, what keeps them apart today.

Ash and Christina wrestle with Victorian questions of desire and honor, passion and duty. Eckhart and Paltrow's characters wonder if love is just another social construct, and they frame their attraction as part of an ongoing existential problem.

The Victorians are of course more interesting, despite the potentially attractive matching of Paltrow and Eckhart (Julia's biker baby sitter in "Erin Brockovich"). But "Possession" turns out to be another ensemble piece in which Northam ("Gosford Park") quietly steals the show.

L.A. Weekly

AUGUST 16 - 22, 2002

Isn't It Romantic?
LaBute's Possession may be; Chabrol's Merci Pour Le Chocolat's anything but

by Ella Taylor

WHEN NURSE BETTY WAS RELEASED IN THE FALL of 2000, critics both pro and con asked whether director Neil LaBute had gone soft. He hadn't: For all her sweetness -- and knowing LaBute, because of it -- Renee Zellweger's soap opera-mad innocent underwent a drubbing at the hands of her mostly male exploiters that was all of a savage piece with the sexual politics in In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. Whether one thinks of LaBute as a cynic or a rigorous moralist plumbing the depths of human depravity -- his sadism toward his characters can be smug, even crowing -- there's no denying his intellect or his willingness to strike new ground. In Nurse Betty LaBute also unveiled a side of himself we hadn't yet seen: the giddy romantic. Or maybe just the Hollywood director for hire. It wasn't clear which, but either way qualifies LaBute as the official movie interpreter of Possession, a Booker Prize-winning novel by British writer A.S. Byatt.

Byatt's 500-plus-page tome, a time-traveling tale of parallel love affairs, one between scholars slowly atrophying in stuffy late-20th-century academe, the other an illicit liaison between Victorian poets loosely based on Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is as ambitious as it is marketable. Studded with breathy letter writing and some pretty good faux-Victorian poetry, the novel is also a meditation on the idea of Romance in literature and life. Byatt advances the clever but hardly original claim that the Victorians approached love and sex with more matter-of-fact candor than we dreary moderns can muster, precisely because they lacked our dubious freedom to distance ourselves from both subjects with endless chatter. At its best, Possession traffics in the power of lyrical language to stimulate, challenge and seduce, a power we've lost in today's babel of talking heads and talk-show participants. Like most period pieces, the book rewrites the past into an argument against the present.

LaBute has skillfully pruned away an unwieldy cast of supporting characters, as well as the novel's loftier digressions, so that Possession ends up framing the pressing Hollywood question of how long it will take for Gwyneth Paltrow to shake down her golden hair from its prissy bun. Paltrow plays Maud Bailey, a buttoned-up professor of gender studies at a provincial English university, whose specialty is the work of Christabel LaMotte, a free-thinking gothic poet from whom Maud is descended and who, according to Maud's trendily analytical research, passed her days in happy proto-feminist rural seclusion with her lesbian lover. Maud is not amused when Roland, an impoverished young research assistant played by LaBute's longtime lead actor Aaron Eckhart, shows up with two suggestive letters written to LaMotte by Randolph Henry Ash, a grand old man of Victorian poetry long believed to be a devoutly monogamous husband. Overcoming an initial mutual dislike (he thinks she's an ice queen, she distrusts men, both are sexually screwed up to the point of paralysis), Roland and Maud track down the rest of the correspondence and, with other deviously interested parties in hot pursuit, follow a trail of lovers' trysts in the English and French countrysides.

Cutting back and forth between the two couples, LaBute keeps faith with Byatt's sense of the past as a place to repair and fulfill the pent-up yearnings of an allegedly liberated present. Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier has lit the Victorian sequences with a vibrant pre-Raphaelite glow, and Jennifer Ehle, who plays LaMotte, reliably unleashes her slow, radiant Madonna smile -- the one that so bewitched audiences who saw her in television's Pride and Prejudice -- on Jeremy Northam's Ash, who is all brooding dark eyes and sexily wayward forelock. The two actors work some mild romance-novel magic together, but they're exactly who you'd expect to see cast in a production of this kind, as is Paltrow's Maud, enunciating capably in letter-perfect upper-class Brit and defrosting nicely as she warms to her ancestor, and to Roland. The lone exception to all this BBC casting is Eckhart, who, transposed here from a working-class Englishman in the novel to a brash American, sticks out like a sore thumb. One expects LaBute to have some serious fun with this incongruity, but this Roland is no more than a regulation commitment-phobe, as well as a butt for some rather limp American-baiting that pales before Byatt's contempt for all things transatlantic. And only in one scene, an agonized confrontation between Ash and LaMotte at a seance, do we catch a glimpse of LaBute's old obsession with the gender wars; it's as though the director is determined to erase all trace of himself from the project. Watching Possession is a movie experience not much deeper than you'd get on your couch watching Masterpiece Theater or Mystery! -- pleasant enough, but oh so soft.

IN THE OPENING SEQUENCE OF CLAUDE Chabrol's sly, supple new film Merci Pour le Chocolat, Marie-Claire ("Mika") Muller (Isabelle Huppert), heiress to a wealthy Swiss chocolate-making fortune, meets and greets at a reception following her second marriage to Andre Polonski, a famous pianist. Around her, expensive tongues wag with discreet gossip about the couple's separation, the mysterious death of Polonski's second wife, Lisbeth, and the viability of the remarriage. Mika holds herself aloof, her face a mask of self-satisfied inscrutability laced with the hint of a slightly derisive smile as she plots with her accommodating stepson, Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), to slip away home, a quiet, graceful, well-ordered universe designed to facilitate Polonski's piano playing. Smooth and eager to please, continually effacing herself, Mika makes the trains run on time, and when Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), a promising young pianist who has just learned by way of yet another loose tongue that she may have been switched at birth with Polonski's son, shows up uninvited at the front door, Mika warmly receives her without batting an eyelid -- and promptly spills a flask of hot chocolate, the family's nighttime treat, over Jeanne's sweater.

Welcome to the Swiss bourgeoisie, where great wellsprings of underground anxiety, rage and resentment seep through the walls of placid propriety and convention. Though it's based on a novel by the American mystery writer Charlotte Armstrong, Merci Pour le Chocolat is a particularly French thriller: Genre serves more as a frame for philosophical speculation (in this case, the middle-class psyche) than it does for action. No one dies onscreen -- the nearest thing to spilled blood is the stain of chocolate spreading over a floor -- and nothing seems to burst the bubble of complacency in which this family floats. The story proceeds, by minuscule tonal shifts and barely perceptible changes in the atmospheric temperature, from touches of ghoulish comedy -- Polonski and the protege "who makes [him] feel young again" perfecting her performance of a Liszt funeral march -- to the creepy stillness of death that pervades the house. Chabrol teases us with physical resemblances: Guillaume looks like his father, Jeanne like the long-dead Lisbeth. (Huppert, for her part, is magnificent, an enigmatic echo of her twisted musician in Michael Haneke's horribly grandiloquent The Piano Teacher.) In the end, what matters is not so much what Mika has done or will do, or even whom she has fooled, as the willingness of those in her orbit to fool themselves. "Instead of loving," she says, "I say 'I love you,' and people believe it."

Detroit News

'Possession' is a brilliant tale of love's grasp through ages

By Susan Stark / Detroit News Film Critic

4 stars [out of 4 -- actually, they're roses]

Catch your breath, kindred spirits: "Possession" is the most romantic movie to come our way since "The English Patient." The beauty part? Like "The English Patient," "Possession" is not only soaringly romantic but also stringently intelligent.

Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by England's Antonia Byatt and directed with keen regard for both the modern and Victorian strains of the story by sublimely unpredictable Neil LaBute, the film gains ballast, texture and credibility from a truly fabulous cast.

The company includes Gwyneth Paltrow, again doing her spot-on English thing, as a serious literary scholar with a special interest in an esteemed female poet who is Paltrow's gifted ancestor. Aaron Eckhart plays a scruffy but serious American man of letters who concentrates on the work of the celebrated male poet who was the contemporary and, it emerges, the lover of Paltrow's ancestor.

The hitch, when they meet, is that both Victorians are otherwise attached. He is well-settled in a marriage with a devoted woman. She is well-settled in a relationship with an adoring woman painter.

Before the film is done, it establishes complex, darkly gorgeous romantic links between the two Victorians even as it dramatizes the hard-won love between Paltrow and Eckhart, two severely commitment-shy moderns.

Jeremy Northam, who was Paltrow's electric co-star in "Emma," and spectacularly bright-eyed Jennifer Ehle, best known to U.S. audiences for her multidimensional role in "Sunshine," play the urgent Victorian lovers.

Paltrow's work here is an ode to the power and glories of minimalism. She and Eckhart, whose cowboy good looks and easygoing style have made him a LaBute regular, find each other through their separate and distinct research into Victorian poetry. His poet: the literary hotshot played by Northam. Her poet: the literary light played by Ehle.

As Paltrow and Eckhart together discover the passionate, painful, hurtful yet finally affirmative romance of a man and woman who preceded them by more than a century, their own struggle with love and commitment comes ever more clear. This is the kind of two-track romantic drama that is just laced with landmines, but LaBute and his exemplary actors dance fast and smart.

Controversial since he came to fame with 1997's "In The Company of Men," a brutal look at vengeful, sexually threatened men, LaBute cemented his reputation as a brilliant maverick with 2000's brilliantly genre-bending "Nurse Betty." He's a true original. Yet dependably, he put his eye, ear and heart to the service of women and men striving to make connections.

With "Possession," he continues in the same vein but at a depth and range that is just plain breathtaking.


Review by Chuck Schwartz

IN SHORT: Neil LaBute makes a chick flick. An amazing work. [Rated PG-13 for sexuality and some thematic elements. minutes]

But first, a true Cranky story: We had in our life, for the good part of a decade, a woman who stayed by our side while we recovered from the broken neck and regained the use of paralyzed limbs. She was our guide when we sat to watch "chick flicks," since the good ones would leave her in a puddle in no time at all. She'd sit for other movies, of course, but refused early on to do so for anything by Neil LaBute. She considered his work borderline misogynistic. The relationship didn't end in any way close to what we would have liked, in fact we didn't exchange a word in all the years that preceded her early death from cancer. [If we had, now that would have made a rockin' chick flick....] We wonder what she would have thought about Possession, perhaps the most brilliant execution in this genre that we've sat through in all the years we've been reviewing.

Picture a man dressed in Victorian garb walking through a grassy plain while a voiceover reads poetry written by this character and orchestrated strings weep. Yep, no doubt this is the first warning shot of a monster chick flick coming over our critical bow. It's also the first scene in the first of a pair of love stories, one set circa 1859 and one in the present day. While the former fairly reeks of Miramax style production values, the modern story is sharp and raucous as as any written by Neil LaBute and more than makes up for all that annoying orchestration. This man is Randolph Henry Ashe (Jeremy Northam), poet laureate to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. A hundred years on his work, including a celebrated cache of randy late in his life writings, is being celebrated in a retrospective at the British Museum. There, under the watchful eye of a Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey), an American scholar named Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) spends his time answering questions about the life of the poet, and his wife. That means extra trips to the Archives in the Library, where Ashe's books are kept. In one of those books Michell finds a two page love letter, addressee unknown which, in a moment of recklessness, he steals. Tracking down the relationship hinted at in this previously unknown letter will form the core of the modern story, which brings Michell together with Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), herself an authority on another known poet of the Victorian period, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Thanks to a diary entry kept by Ashe's wife Ellen (Holly Aird), Michell thinks that LaMotte is the object of the Poet's affection.

One problem with this thesis: Ashe was unquestionably devoted to his wife and, as far as all the records show, never looked at another woman. Ever. Second, Christabel was just as devoted to her partner, in a time when the word "lesbian" was never, ever uttered. That partner, Blanche Glover (Lena Headey) drowned late in life and Christabel disappeared for years afterward. Michell's inquiry is as outrageous as it is presumptive, and the time he spends with the self-described "repressed Brit" Bailey, herself a distant descendant of LaMotte, is as much an exercise in disproving the theory as it is a building block for a very modern relationship yet to develop.

But ... in the Bailey homestead, a rather impressive manor in the Lincolnshire countryside, Bailey and Michell make a discovery which has the potential to set the poetic word on its ear. Solving this mystery; proving the identities of the Victorians involved provides us with a modern chase that, given the hard edge of LaBute's writing, should keep every male in the audience happy even as the Victorian soap plays out in ways that are so structurally magnificent that, once you get past the dripping strings, isn't hard to bear from the male angle, either. Top it off with another subplot, a modern one centering on another pair of scholars who have sniffed out that Michell and Bailey ave found something, and want to steal their thunder.

Summing up the high points, briefly: Lesbianism, Adultery, a Murder, a Suicide, Sexual Repression and a pretty good Mystery are offset by traditional chick flick items that would've had our old femme friend in a puddle a foot deep, even at a Neil LaBute film. The Victorian segments were a bit much for this guy who preferred the modern sequence and the eventual unraveling of Paltrow's "repression".

More important, despite anything we didn't like about Possession, it's a film we still remembered with clarity days after seeing it. That's the exception in what we do -- most movies are gone from memory in 24 hours, and that's why the numbers kick up a notch for this one...

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Possession, he would have paid . . .


Teens and those of you without at least a pair of relationships under your belts should stay away. The rest of us grownups have our choice of which story to immerse ourselves in. Traditional or Modern. LaBute balances both masterfully and edits the pair together in a manner that one never overwhelms the other. Something for everyone.

The rating scale basically works out to:

$8.00 ($9)- I'd see it twice
$7.00 - Highly recommended
$6.00 - the average "good" movie
$5.00 - date flick. Popcorn flicks average this mark
$4.00 - (NYC PPV cost)
$3.00 - (NYC weekend rental) If you've got to see a flick twice to "get" it this rating is mandatory
$2.00 - (NYC midweek rental)
$1.00 - barely tolerable
$0.00 - wretched

Sticky romance from odd source

Steven Rea
Philadelphia Inquirer

Published: Friday, August 16, 2002

** [2 out of 4 stars]

What do you call a much-praised playwright and filmmaker whose work has drawn charges of misogyny and misanthropy and who suddenly goes all soft and icky, directing his ardent thespians to say stuff such as "I just wanted to see if there's an 'us' in you and me" and -- really, sans irony -- "You take my breath away"?

You call him Neil LaBute, the prickly chronicler of sexual politics in In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, who, as the unlikely cowriter and director of Possession, has foisted on the world a French Lieutenant's Woman-like romance. A bad French Lieutenant's Woman-like romance, it should be added, full of flowery Pre-Raphaelite verse and dovetailing story lines that shift between the late 19th and early 21st centuries -- each with its own set of thwarted lovers flexing their heartstrings, and twitching their temples, in an effort to make the best of their time together.

Adapted from the A.S. Byatt novel, in which a mismatched pair of modern-day scholars uncover some revelatory epistles from a famous Victorian poet addressed to his secret mistress (and her heated responses), Possession stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. She's Maud Bailey, a frosty academician with Sloane Ranger airs (yes, Paltrow-does-Britspeak again!), and he -- a LaBute regular -- is Roland Michell, a scruffy American professor's aide who steals the heretofore unknown letters of Ran.dolph Henry Ash from the moldy pages of a forgotten library book. At first, the two are uneasy allies, but as they immerse themselves in their arcane literary sleuthing, they fall in love -- and, of course, are scared to face their feelings.

Ash, who we're to imagine is of the stature of a Robert Browning, is played, in misty, Masterpiece Theatre-ish flashbacks by Jeremy Northam, whilst the poet's clandestine muse, Christabel La.Motte, a painter and poet (modeled along the lines of Christina Rossetti), has been assigned to the usually wonderful Jennifer Ehle, who is left to look merely flushed and wistful.

LaBute toggles between the two couples, and two time zones, using clever devices such as train platforms, swimming holes, and other places where the pairs had both trod, separated by a hundred-some years.

Eckhart, with his J. Crew get-ups and perennial two-day stubble, isn't at all convincing as a guy steeped in the finer points of Victorian literature. He looks as though he'd rather go watch a football match, or hit the pubs for pints. And Northam, wandering o'er vales and hills as lonely as a cloud, looks awkward and bored amidst his period-piece props.

But the real problem isn't with the actors, it's with 1) the source material, a highfalutin romance novel with a clever literary conceit, and 2) LaBute's clumsy, uncomfortable efforts to telescope Byatt's book into a workable movie.

'Possession' doubles the pleasure, doubles fun

Mary F. Pols
The Contra Costa Times

Published: Friday, August 16, 2002

*** 1/2 [3 1/2 out of 4 stars]

Aside from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the summer has been nearly devoid of romantic offerings. But now, just as the season draws to a close, along comes the clever, crowd-pleasing "Possession," a movie double-dipped in romance.

Adapted from the Booker Prize-winning novel by A.S. Byatt, "Possession" features dual love affairs, one contemporary, one Victorian. In juxtaposing the two affairs, Byatt played with the theme of passion, both limited in different ways by their own era. Interlaced with an intellectual exploration of 19th-century poetry, Byatt's novel is a challenging read, filled with long literary passages pleasing mostly to those with scholarly leanings. The movie version, directed by Neil LaBute, an American best known for his scathing studies of human nature, keeps the literary exposition to a brisk enjoyable pace and focuses more on the romance.

The tart and witty screenplay, written by LaBute, David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") and Laura Jones, takes minor liberties with Byatt's story. The central character of Roland Michell has been changed to an American, and the script is littered with jokes about how the English feel about Americans and vice versa. Byatt purists might be bothered by this, but it's a neat trick, defusing some of the potential negative energy from having an American director take on such a thoroughly English project. The other advantage is that we get to see LaBute's college pal and regular collaborator, the chameleonlike Aaron Eckhart, take on the challenge of a romantic lead as Roland.

Roland works as a little-appreciated researcher for Professor Blackadder, the world's foremost authority on a Victorian poet named Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), best known for his series of steamy love poems. It's always been assumed that Ash wrote the poems for his wife -- that is, until Roland discovers a pair of unsent, unfinished love letters Ash wrote that suggest otherwise. Eager to make his mark in the literary world, Roland sets out to unravel the mystery.

His quest takes him to Maud (Gwyneth Paltrow), a contemporary scholar, an ice queen dressed in exquisitely simple clothing. She's made a career out of studying the little-known poetry of Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), her great-aunt "thrice removed." Roland thinks Christabel might have been the woman Ash loved. Maud scoffs at the thought, Christabel having been both an early feminist and an avowed lesbian. But at the same time she's intrigued, both by Roland's brash masculinity and the thought of this literary mystery, and the two of them set out looking for clues. They're chased by another pair of sleuths, an American collector who is obsessed with Ash and one of Roland's more successful colleagues.

We see both romances unfold nearly simultaneously, with LaBute cutting back and forth between modern and Victorian times. He does so very cleverly and with elegant economy, sending Ash and Christabel out one door as Roland and Maud open the same door in present-day, or allowing his camera to slide over the Victorian lovers standing on a railroad platform, then down a pair of steps to where Maud and Roland are saying goodbye curbside at the same station.

It's a tossup as to which love story is more compelling, since all four romantic leads are excellent. Eckhart, best known as "Erin Brockovich's" biker boyfriend, emerges here as a full-fledged heartthrob, while Northam ("Emma") simmers sexily as usual. Ehle, who looks uncannily like Meryl Streep circa "The French Lieutenant's Woman," has a lovely, sly presence, and Paltrow, managing her English accent again with utter ease, brings an unexpectedly sweet vulnerability to Maud.

LaBute made his reputation on an entirely different kind of movie. His first movie was "In the Company of Men," a deeply unsettling feature about a pair of businessmen who toy with a deaf secretary, emotionally and physically, for the fun of it (it starred Eckhart as the nastier of the two). He followed that up in 1998 with "Your Friends & Neighbors," an alarming look at the intertwined sex and love lives of a group of yuppies. With his dark comedy "Nurse Betty," his interest in brutality seemed to ease a little, but "Possession" is easily his most mainstream effort.

The LaBute edge is still visible, and it gives the movie a welcome crispness. He's always been fascinated by the lousy, often cruel ways people treat each other in relationships, and particularly in the Maud-Roland romance, we see his influence. They are remarkably prickly, each more ready than the other to flounce away from potential love. While Ash and Christabel were hampered in their love by their restrictive society, Maud and Roland have no such obstacles. Instead, they create their own excuses for not being together, bickering, talking in circles, running away from each other. Their courtship is absurd in many ways, but as anyone familiar with the dating game can tell you, its frustrations are all too real. It's an intriguing theme, plenty to hang a movie on.

Even trimmed to this more manageable structure, the movie has a tough time racing through all the ground it needs to cover. Since the story is so charming, it's easy to accept this flaw, as we're still figuring out the players and enjoying the story. But the end of the movie moves at such a rapid pace, we can't help noticing those gaps. Fortunately, LaBute doesn't skimp in the closing scene, and it's a lovely, touching moment, enough to send you out into the night with a happy glow.

movie review by Mark Palermo, The Coast (Halifax, Nova Scotia)

Rating: ROTTEN [i.e., on balance a "negative" review]

Because of LaBute's own inhibitions at opening himself to the story's emotion...Possession never quite functions as an exploration of passion. Love is a force that's defiant of expectation and reason in Possession, Neil LaBute's honourable but flatfooted adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel. LaBute veteran Aaron Eckhart stars as Roland Michell, who travels to London in order to research the 19th century poet Randolph Henry Ash (played in flashbacks by Jeremy Northam). After discovering two love-letters that he believes reveal secrets to Ash's life, Michell brings his findings to uptight English scholar Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). Alternating between past and present events, LaBute draws connections between Ash's unlikely romance and the uppityness of Michell and Maud, and their eventual surrender to desire. The performances are good across the board, and this is the most cinematic work of LaBute's career. He demonstrates a care for detail in faintly underscoring Michell and Maud's admission of their own romantic roadblocks with the sound of a prolonged, empty wind. It's just too bad the material doesn't coalesce into an engaging whole. The less talky flashback scenes present events involving temptation and suicide that require a resounding power, not a simple recognition of loss that's quickly stored in the viewer's mind. Because of LaBute's own inhibitions in opening himself to the story's emotion (this is the man who made the thoroughly misanthropic In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors), Possession never quite functions as an exploration of passion. For long stretches, it leaves viewers with nothing to watch beyond an archaeology study conducted by English historians.

Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow play modern researchers who investigate a possible love affair between two long-gone Victorian writers in Neil LaBute's Possession.

'Possession' *** [3 out of 5 stars]

Bill Muller
The Arizona Republic

Aug. 16, 2002 12:00:00

Neil LaBute is big double-crosser.

I would say he's a dirty double-crosser, but I'm too fond of the director's movies, including In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors and Nurse Betty.

But after all those gritty, perverse dramas, LaBute offers up Possession, a Merchant/Ivory look-alike about a pair of historians (played by Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow) who are breathlessly trying to determine if a famous dead poet had an illicit affair - in the 19th century, no less.

That's right. No evil co-workers, cheating lovers or shoot-outs - just a bunch of flashbacks featuring Jeremy Northam as fictional Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash and Jennifer Ehle as equally made-up feminist writer Christabel LaMotte.

For those who enjoy a rousing tale of research, love and picturesque shots of the English countryside, you can't do much better than Possession. If you're expecting Linda Blair's head to spin around at some point, you might want to skip it.

Based on the 1990 novel, Possession follows the exploits of Roland (Eckhart), a scruffy American on a fellowship, and Maud (Paltrow), a buttoned-down British historian who's an expert on LaMotte.

After an initial awkward meeting, the pair set out to determine if devoted husband Ash actually had an affair with LaMotte, a lesbian with a live-in lover.

Of course, as they learn more about Randolph and Christabel's relationship, Roland and Maud find themselves drawn to each other. And LaBute does a nice job paralleling the modern scenes with the flashbacks as Roland and Maud research their long-gone doppelgangers.

Of all the actors, Northam (Gosford Park) has the firmest grasp on his character, turning in yet another nuanced performance. Paltrow is solid as Maud, though Eckhart seems too blunt a personality to play a historical researcher. But he's been in all of LaBute's movies, so why break form now?

For a movie that's half period piece, half romance, the pacing's not all that bad. But there's just not enough going on here to hold our attention for long.

Oh, there are some scheming, rival researchers in the background, but we're never too worried about them. And our historical figures get in far more trouble, but they've been dead for 150 years, so there's not much we can do about it.

The romance between Roland (changed from British to American for the movie version) and Maud seems to poke along in traditional fashion, while the flashback love affair between Randolph and Christabel is much more interesting.

Then again, they had all that Victorian poetry on their side.

Apollo Movie Guide

Review by Brian Webster

Apollo Score: 83
Readers' Rating: 80 (5 votes)

How much would you be willing to gamble on the ultimate romance -- especially if you're already in a committed relationship with someone else? What if you said "no" and shied away? Would you be filled with regret years later? Does an opportunity to enter into the ultimate life-justifying, soul-enriching relationship only come along once in life? Should you grasp at the opportunity or play it safe and protect what you've got?

In Neil LaBute's adaptation of the A.S. Byatt novel Possession, these questions are relevant to two couples from different eras -- two 1890s poets, and two 21st century academics who are on the trail of the truth about romance between the poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte.

Wending its way through the parallel stories of 1890s romance and modern day literary detective work and - just possibly -- a second romance, Possession features Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle as the Victorian lovers, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart as the sleuths who set out to discover the truth about Ash and LaMotte. Combining period-piece romance and intrigue with modern romance and mystery, the film strikes a fine balance that will satisfy lovers of romance and those who crave intelligent whodunits.

The Victorian-era love story virtually bubbles over with the stuff of melodrama -- forbidden love, heartbroken spouses, secret trysts, and scandalous secrets -- while the modern-day relationship seems positively pedestrian in comparison -- Maud Bailey (Paltrow) is icy-cold in emotional self-defence, while Roland Michell (Eckhart) has simply sworn off women following past undisclosed disaster. The two stories are very different, yet their juxtaposition works -- any less drama in the Ash-LaMotte relationship might have made it seem undeserving of such curiosity a century later, while any more drama in the Michell-Bailey relationship might have made it seem unreal and over-the-top. We expect melodrama of Victorian poets, but not of post-millennium 30-somethings.

The interwoven stories work well, as LaBute shifts between eras in a natural way, avoiding any sense that this is all overly-contrived. Similarly, while the romance between Ash and LaMotte is intense from the start and maintains its passion throughout the film, Bailey and Michell's connection -- obviously inevitable from the moment they meet -- develops much more gradually and tentatively. The inability of Victorian-era lovers to openly flaunt their attraction leads to a more private but intensely passionate bond, while the openness of modern romance causes the would-be lovers -- afraid of the emotional risk -- to hesitate over making the infinitely more socially-acceptable leap.

There's little of LaBute's usual searing social commentary here, except for his snide portrayals of the British and -- for a moment -- the French. But there's plenty else that works, including fine performances from all four lead actors. Eckhart is due to strike it big in Hollywood, as he's got the looks, the charisma and the acting skill to make a very big name for himself. Northam has been churning out strong performances like his work here for a long time, and he too deserves to become better known. Paltrow, of course, is already a major star, and she delivers an intelligent performance as the uptight British academic who's bewitched by the relationship she's investigating, and equally by the American whose enthusiasm got her onto the case in the first place. And Ehle is no less impressive. Her looks and her acting are both reminiscent of Meryl Streep -- high praise on both counts that's well deserved here.

Intensely romantic, thought-provoking and even an engaging mystery, Possession is a welcome treat for intelligent movie goers who don't mind wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Apollo Movie Guide

Review by Jon Lap

Apollo Score: 85
Readers' Rating: 80 (5 votes)

Rife with tumultuous love, and misleading truths that are taken for fact, Neil LaBute's film shows how these unfortunate components make up the tally of two poets lives, Roland Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle).

It's a rather novel approach for LaBute, and it also befits his earlier films. We get the romantic doom of his usual commentary, but this time with new filmic scope and multidimensionality. That's not to say that his other films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors (omitting Nurse Betty) were dimensionless. They represent wonderfully bipartisan views of modern relationships. But their cinematic scope is a bit dense -- laden with a narrow 'independent' style of cinema that can weigh heavily on its audience. But with Possession, LaBute's visionary camera opens up to the vast dimensions of overlapping narratives, a broad dialogue, a variation on the period piece, and brief glances at the possibility of a happy outcome.

The central characters in the present-day portion of the film are Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) -- both scholars studying Victorian Age poetry -- namely, the works of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash, respectively. Roland is an American scholar surrounded by London's snooty, self-appointed ideological finest. He's there on a fellowship as an eminent Professor's research assistant -- as the proletariat at the bottom of the intellectual food chain. Against the backdrop of Ash's academic commemoration for his poetry of devout love to his wife -- "he never even glanced at another woman" -- is Roland's untimely discovery of two veiled love letters that appear to contradict this notion of Ash's divine fidelity. This is a finding that could change Roland's low rank among the academics -- for the better. But Roland isn't as piqued by the potential valorization of his intellect, as he is by the duplicity of history.

At its ideological center, Possession is interested in probing -- rather existentially -- with a compelling sense in place of a persuasive one -- the origin and nature of truth and historical fact. Truth's ancestry and essence is deconstructed on a beam that carefully balances cunning spiritedness with stately preciousness. It's a film with a message that encourages understanding life as having more than one layer of truth. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Ash and LaMotte lived double lives. This theme finds transgression in the film's expressions of emotional and personal falsity -- rewriting history's told facts; begging the survey of all truisms. LaBute hones in on questions of authentic fact -- questions that may be too self-reflexive for the audience to share in the delight of Maude and Roland's uncovering.

LaBute gives way to small contrivances toward film's-end, as well as an idle portrayal of Maud and Roland, but these should be taken as trivial defects rather than major detractions, as the film effuses an organic splendour throughout -- one that finds the companionship of its audience. Northam and Ehle are superb -- predominant among the acting class of 2002, and Gabriel Yared's score is a thematically expansive provision.

The Film Hobbit

Review by FilmHobbit : 2002-08-28

Review by: Joshua Tyler

When you give your movie a name like Possession, you have a certain responsibility towards it. Possession isn't a name you waste on any old flick. Possession implies conflict, turmoil, and stress. A movie named Possession ought to be about the devil, or about some mad obsessive quest to own something or someone. The last thing you'd expect is an entire film about researchers quietly reading dusty old letters. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Possession delivers.

Possession is the story of two literary sleuths, one American, one English, unearthing the soap opera like secrets of two Victorian poets. Somehow, the passionate lives they unearth affect their own, bringing the two together -- or so the movie tagline goes. Frankly, I think any romantic involvement that occurs happens merely as a result of throwing two beautiful people of the opposite sex alone in a hotel room for to many nights in a row.

Possession is two distinct stories. One is the modern tale of a handsome, and badly acted American research student (Aaron Eckhart) and his staunchly British, beautiful blond companion (Gwyneth Paltrow) driving around the countryside. The other is a side story, the one that Paltrow and Eckhart uncover in their research, show in a series of historical flashbacks, which in some ways feel as if they are generally an afterthought.

The real problem here is that both stories, however they were intended to be connected, have one thing in common: They are exceedingly boring. The Victorian romance flashbacks are boring and fairly unrealistic, with the film never really spending enough time on them to inspire any great deal of investment in the characters portrayed there. The modern romance between Paltrow and Eckhart is just one big yawn. It's over an hour into the film before there is even any HINT of romance between the two. By the time it begins, you've spent a good 50 minutes watching two rather boring and badly acted characters sit on the floor in various libraries and research centers reading out loud badly written love letters.

But Paltrow had to make this. She'll wither up and blow away if she isn't allowed to trot out that ridiculously overrated British accent of hers at least once a year. She's a much better actor when she isn't doing a Monty Python parody with her voice. Just because she pulled it off in a film or two, doesn't mean that we must be eternally tortured with her mad plot to unemploy every legitimate British actor on the face of the earth. Really, couldn't we have found a REAL Brit to fill the role? I'm told there are millions of them.

Next to her co-star Eckhart, Paltrow really comes off as a gem. It's actually a real relief whenever the camera shifts to her, since it gives us a break from Eckhart's stilted, pretty boy posing, and soap-opera ready acting. Maybe HE should try playing his character as a Monty Python parody too since if nothing else that would at least seem familiar.

I think the people playing the various historical figures involved in Possession can actually. However, I can't really attest to it, since they seem to do little else while on screen except scribble on historically accurate scraps of paper with various types of ink dipped pens. What I can verify is that Jeremy Northam has lovely penmanship and I would happily recommend him for all your party invitation needs.

I knew what Possession was going in. I wasn't really expecting a movie about the Devil. However I was expecting to stay awake, something Possession makes impossible. It is my hope, that doing this will help Paltrow finally get the British thing out of her system so she can get back to making the fine, high quality karaoke movies we've all grown to expect from one of America's premiere actresses.

August 20, 2002

Erotic or poetic?
Possession makes poetry look sexy

By: Jeet Thayil

There is a scene in Possession in which Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhardt) is sitting in some unnamed British library researching Victorian poet laureate Henry Randolph Ash (Jeremy Northam).

In this short scene, the camera pans through the stacks and stops when it gets to Mitchell. It lingers on his dishevelled hair and casual chic attire. It drinks the light he is bathed in.

In other scenes, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) comes upon Mitchell, reading poetry or writing his own. Mitchell is a studly-like literary fellow (he is literally an American on a fellowship in England) who lounges about bare-chested or in T-shirt and jeans. Though rumpled, he is attractive in a louche sort of way.

But Possession's real stud is Ash, the long-gone poet Mitchell is researching. As played by Northam, Ash shows a dark Byronic appeal and sunny sensitivity. His wife dotes on him. His mistress adores him. With his wife Ash plays chess. With his mistress, poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), Ash actually scales the heights of passion, to use a suitably torrid cliche.

Mitchell discovers a love letter from Ash to LaMotte in a library book, and ends up taking the letter to Bailey, the most prominent LaMotte scholar in England. Together they enter upon an enterprise of literary detection to find out what actually happened and, presumably, be first out of the gate with a tell-all biography. As the modern day couple trails the Victorians, passion follows.

The result of all this doubling is that Possession manages to pull off a daring idea: making poetry sexy. Poetry has always been the sexiest of the literary forms. A fact we seem to have forgotten since the excesses of the 19th century were replaced by the staid smarminess of the 20th.

For every Byron or Shelley of a bygone era, there was a Robert Frost or T S Eliot closer to our time who managed to strip the sex and drugs from poetry and cloak it with academic respectability and, sadly, some measure of biographical boredom.

A S Byatt's book attempted to bring back some of the erotic power that has always been associated with poetry. Possession director Neil LaBute, in adapting the book to the movies from a screenplay by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and himself, has wrought some crucial changes that are only partially successful.

For one thing, LaBute transforms Mitchell's character from a lower class Englander to an American in England. This takes away the erotic charge of sex between the classes that writers from D H Lawrence to Somerset Maugham have successfully employed. Then again by making Mitchell American, LaBute and Hwang are able to use other avenues for delight.

In one scene the initially hostile Bailey (played by Paltrow with a British accent so resonant she must be an Anglophile) and the emotionally reticent Mitchell are lying in bed talking, of all things. Their Victorian counterparts would not have wasted time with words, they would have got right down to the immediate physical action.

Coming back to the two, Bailey tells Mitchell that the flip side of obsession is repulsion. That is Freud, says Mitchell, displaying a talent for literary allusion. Then, in one of the film's better lines, Mitchell says he may be wrong: it may not have been Freud after all; it may have been Calvin Klein.

When Bailey laughs --- and Gwyneth Paltrow laughs beautifully, it is an exercise of the facial muscles that is unavailable to mortal women --- at his one-liner, we in the audience know she is finally ready for Mitchell. What happens next is a good reason to go see the film for yourself.

The switching between the Victorian lovers and the post-modern ones is done effectively and with minimum fuss. The camera pans between centuries in the space of a heartbeat, without the contrived cinematic tools we have all grown sick of. At one moment we are in a world of horse carriages and gowns, in the next a car sits throbbing outside a subway station.

Compared to the cool detachment of Bailey and Mitchell, the Victorian lovers seem like tabloid fodder. There is pregnancy, lesbianism, suicide, deception, even a hint of murder. Ash and his mistress are willing to throw it all away for the fleeting joys of love's brief moment. Mitchell and his lady, on the other hand, are so modern they cannot even kiss. They are not possessed by anything, not by love, not by poetry. It is a uniquely modern failing.

For a story that celebrates English poetry, which in turn celebrates the glories of the English landscape, the glimpses of England's 'green majesty' are all too brief. When the viewer does see a vista of gently rolling hills, it seems like a painterly vision, too beautiful to be real. Much like poetry.

One Guy's Opinion


Review: When cheap, formulaic so-called romances proliferate on screen nowadays, it's wonderful to see the real thing again--and how surprising that it should come from Neil LaBute, whose plays are among the most savage to grace the contemporary stage and whose earlier films have largely been dominated by a dark, cynical view of human nature. "Possession" is a lovely film that merges two interconnected love stories, one set in the present and the other more than a hundred years in the past; and both are charming; in its portrayal of the aching distance between characters who are reluctantly drawn together (as well as its sophisticated literary ambience), it recalls David Jones' "84 Charing Cross Road" (1986), though the separation here is temporal as well as spatial. It also portrays the joy of scholarly discovery, as well as the viciousness and envy endemic to academia (in accordance with the observation that academic politics are as nasty as they are because the stakes are so low), better than any film in recent memory. The film is based on the 1990 Booker prize novel by A.Y. Byatt, which must have posed enormous problems for the adapters. Byatt's work is to a great extent an epistolary novel, telling a good deal of its story through elaborate letters (as well as extended passages from poems supposedly written by the earlier of its two couples and diary excerpts). It was in many respects a tour de force imitation of a nineteenth-century narrative form now little employed, interspersed with brilliant facsimiles of the sort of swooning, dense metaphysical verse produced during the period. Obviously a film can't tell the story in the same way; so David Henry Hwang (the author of "M. Butterfly"), Laura Jones and LaBute have restructured the piece as a straight mirror-image piece, alternating the story of the secret nineteenth-century romance between poets Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) with one of a growing attachment between the two researchers thrown together in a furtive effort to uncover the evidence of it. These are the stern, businesslike expert on LaMotte, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), a scruffy, impecunious research assistant who has stumbled upon the hitherto-unknown draft of a letter which offers the first inkling of the long-ago affair involving the married Ash and LaMotte. (The fact that the "experts" consider Ash to have been a rigorously faithful spouse and LaMotte a lesbian, living as she long did with Blanche Glover, a female companion, provides a subtle swipe at trendy scholarly categorization.) In addition to jettisoning the ample epistolary and verse components of the book (except for an occasionally smidgen of read text), the adapters have streamlined the narrative and eliminated or simplified a variety of secondary characters while making a significant alteration in one of the main ones. In Byatt's book, for example, Michell is living unhappily with long-time girlfriend Val, and their relationship unravels as the one with Maud ignites; here, Val is history, and the man is nursing the effects of his breakup with her. Cropper (Trevor Eve), the prof from New Mexico who uses a large bankroll to snap up all Ash material that isn't tied down, was a subtler figure in the novel than in the film, where he becomes rather a caricature of the ugly American academic. And perhaps most importantly, Roland is transformed from a Brit into an American expatriate. The reason for this change, which makes Michell a rather unlikely figure from a purely practical standpoint (surely such posts at the British Museum, would logically go to English citizens), is unclear. Perhaps it wasn't felt that Eckart, a charter member of the LaBute stock troupe, could plausibly pass for British. More likely, the transformation was a typically silly decision predicated on a perceived need to make the tale more palatable to the audience on this side of the Atlantic. Happily, while the various mutations are hardly insignificant(the result, in its lack of literar,1259,-5--13419,00.html

By Vanessa Sibbald, Zap2it

Could it be that Neil LaBute is a romantic at heart? That would seem particularly unlikely for the director of "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors"; films that both show a cynical and, at times, masochistic view on sexual relations, with love being a subject only to examine from afar.

Yet his new film, "Possession," based on the book by A.S. Byatt, demands that LaBute deal with the subject of love head-on; trading in his cynicism for reverence and a little wit. The question is, does he pull it off? In short, yes -- but not without some lapses of faith in the sometimes fickle heart.

The book explores two love stories at different times -- Victorian poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash (played in the film by Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam), and modern-day University scholars, Maud Baily and Roland Michell (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart) -- in order to allow contrasts and comparisons between the two times.

Michell is an upstart American scholar in London on a fellowship to study the poet Ash, who has "given up on love" -- at least the romantic kind. During his studies, he happens across a letter from Ash to LaMotte that suggests a deeper link between the two great writers. Enlisting LaMotte expert Bailey, the two set to find evidence of a tryst between the two literary figures. As they visit the same places where Ash and LaMotte kindled their romance, Michell and Bailey begin to ignite a romance of their own.

Timed to progress simultaneously in the plot, both romances are plagued with difficulties: the Victorian couple's problems stem mostly from the outside world, namely Ash's marriage, LaMotte's companion and social mores of the time; whereas the modern couple's troubles are more internal, having more freedom than they know what to do with, but a buildup of fear and a resulting lack of passion. The convention of the two storylines creates essentially two films in one, and while this doesn't hamper the flow of the film, it does mean less screen time for each story, which are both complex enough to take up a whole film.

Paltrow returns easily to the English accent she used in "Emma" and "Sliding Doors," and does a good job of playing the dispassionate and slightly cold Maud, while Eckhart turns in his most charming on-screen performance yet as the scholarly-persistent, yet love-shy Roland. But the real steal stealers in the film are Northam and Ehle as the Victorian lovers, who imbue so much intelligence and complexity in their characters that I found myself wishing the whole film could be devoted only to them.

While the modern-day lovers may be interesting examples of how dispassionate and insulated we have become over time, watching Ehle's striking strength and intelligence as a woman determined to live for herself and Northam's Ash, wavering between his devotion to his wife, whom he loves, and his growing passion for his intellectual equal, is not only riveting, but also more inspiring as a lesson in how to love. With all of Maud and Roland's romantic trepidation, it's no wonder that the more engrossing story would be the one where the lovers are able to express their feelings with such flair and the fact that LaBute seems to recognize this, gives me hope that he may have a romantic streak running through him after all.


A film review by Steve Rhodes

Copyright 2002 Steve Rhodes

RATING (0 TO ****): ***

Talk about a change of pace! Director Neil LaBute, famous for his hard-edged black comedies like IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS & NEIGHBORS, turns his creative energies to a dreamy, romantic mystery in POSSESSION, a satisfying and entertaining wisp of a story.

Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), an American researcher on a fellowship in England, comes upon love letters between Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), a married Victorian poet, and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a bisexual Victorian poet. In order to unearth the secrets of this previously undiscovered relationship between Ash and LaMotte, Roland turns to Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a literature professor and a distant relative of LaMotte. Both pairs of friends become lovers, and the movie cuts back and forth between the two pairs in the same place but a century and a half apart in time.

This small, delicate story of literary scholarship and love isn't really a comedy, although it does engender a few small laughs and several nice smiles. It is a sweet little mystery covered in romance.

The lush countryside, dotted with stately homes is handsomely captured by cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier. The best and worst part of the picture is the music by Academy Award winner Gabriel Yared (THE ENGLISH PATIENT). With heavy, omnipresent violins, it frequently surpasses and upstages what is otherwise a gossamer tale.

Possession (2002)

** 1/2 [2 1/2 stars out of 4]

Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 17, 2002.

A literate, delicately woven romantic drama that plays itself out more as a book would than a movie, it comes as no surprise that "Possession" is based on a novel by A.S. Byatt. Directed by the until-now king of cynicism Neil LaBute (1997's "In the Company of Men," 1998's "Your Friends & Neighbors," 2000's "Nurse Betty"), this is easily the most gentle and hopeful film in LaBute's current repertoire, if far from his best. At the same time, "Possession" features an excellent quartet of performances making their way through a minor, but emotionally gratifying, story about the rewards and sacrifices one must go through in order to experience the love of a lifetime.

Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American who has come to England to perform research on his favorite 19th-century poet Randolph Henry Ash. When he discovers a supposedly unfound love letter written by Ash to a mistress in the pages of a book, it is the kind of finding that may very well change the history books. Since Ash was an alleged monogamist who wrote in his poetry about looking at no other woman than his wife, this is very big news, indeed. Suspecting that this secret love was fellow poet Cristabel LaMotte, Roland seeks out the aid of English scholar and LaMotte enthusiast Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). As Maud and Roland grow closer through their further studies of these poets, time is turned back to 1859 to capture the personal exploits of Ash (Jeremy Northam) and LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) as their uncontrollable love grew deeper and more dangerous.

With a premise that may seem more at home on the BBC network than the big screen, it is director LaBute and the four central actors who inject enough passion and depth into the heart of "Possession" to mostly overcome this obstacle. With two different love stories evolving in two separate time periods, LaBute uses many clever scene-changing devices to intercut between them, sometimes in the very same shot. This ingenious filmic design plays out, rather indelibly, as if ghosts from the past have begun invading the lives of the present-day protagonists, and vice versa. Despite the obvious challenge presented in allowing each romance to live and breath on its own without feeling undernourished, LaBute and co-screenwriters David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones have done a respectable job in handling both time periods.

As the afflicted poets of the past, Jeremy Northam (2001's "Gosford Park") and Jennifer Ehle (2000's "Sunshine") are at a constant uphill battle in lending complexity to their characters and relationship, since they have less screen time than their two fellow principles, and they pull it off amicably. Ehle--an almost creepy dead-ringer for Meryl Streep--is almost brilliant in her heartrending portrayal of a woman who is struggling to choose between two forbidden loves, that of the married Ash and a female painter (Lena Headey).

In the overlapping and, overall, more successful modern-day story, LaBute-mainstay Aaron Eckhart (2000's "Nurse Betty") and a British-speaking Gwyneth Paltrow (2001's "Shallow Hal") set off requisite fireworks together. Eckhart and Paltrow invigorate their scenes with classy witticism and an uncontrollable attraction bubbling underneath the surface, allowing their educated characters of Roland and Maud to slowly develop into fully fleshed-out people. Especially impressive is the subtle transformation Paltrow goes through from being a dry, uptight scholar to someone who finally unearths the joy and freedom in her life to literally and figuratively let her hair down.

"Possession" is genuinely romantic and, although slow-paced, never boring. In comparison to the challenging past works of Neil LaBute, however, the film is rather insignificant and meager in the long run. There are several unforeseen plot developments that enter the lives of the characters, but, like the movie itself, are never earth-shattering. LaBute is ultimately capable of much more than "Possession" has to offer, but he breathes a luscious optimism to the proceedings that have, until now, been mostly absent on his resume.

©2002 by Dustin Putman


Two modern scholars prove that romance is still alive while investigating a Victorian love triangle.

Editor: Michael K. Phillips

Editorial Rating: 9 [out of 10]

Acting: 9 [out of 10]
Plot: 8 [out of 10]
Soundtrack and Visuals: 10 [out of 10]
Entertainment Value: 9 [out of 10]

Editorial Review

The Setup
When hunky literary scholar Roland (Aaron Eckhart) discovers the hidden love letters of Victorian poet Randoph Ash, he asks equally attractive scholar Maud (Gwyneth Paltrow) to help with his research. Maud thinks Roland's conclusions about the married Ash having an affair with a renowned lesbian are wrong, but agrees to help nonetheless. Told in parallel stories, the narrative shifts between Ash's Victorian romance and Roland's burgeoning modern-day love with Maud.

The Breakdown Who would have thought that notoriously caustic director Neil LaBute could direct a romance? Ditching the dark cynicism he displayed in "Nurse Betty" and "In the Company of Men," LaBute shows his more elegant and uplifting side. It helps that his high-caliber actors convey more with a gesture than many can with a soliloquy. Unexpectedly lush, unabashedly romantic and wrenchingly tragic, this literary detective drama could be the best date film of the year.

More Information
Holds interest: yes
Good for kids: no
Good for dates: yes
Wait to rent it: no
Recommended: yes

Possession (2002)

movie review by Eugene Novikov, Ultimate Movies!

A shockingly horrid effort from acclaimed writer-director Neil LaBute, who does much better work when his characters spend their time being nasty to each other.

"We shouldn't be doing this. It's dangerous."

Possession tells of two romances, more than a century apart, and botches both of them. It is a shockingly horrid effort from acclaimed writer-director Neil LaBute, who does much better work when his characters spend their time being nasty to each other. Here, he's enamored with a concept that screams for depth, but the overwhelmingly facile script is unwilling to provide it. Neither story goes anywhere, and their juxtaposition grabs our interest only because of LaBute's visual trickery.

The premise seemed nothing if not watchable; certainly, I didn't expect the spectacular failure that the film delivers. Aaron Eckhart, present and accounted for in all of LaBute's movies, stars as Roland Mitchell, an American sent to the Museum of London as a research assistant to a professor of Victorian Poetry. While snooping around in the museum's gargantuan library, he stumbles upon two love letters written by legendary (and fictional) poet Randolph Henry Ash, long thought an angel when it came to monogamy, despite the fact that he and his wife were known not to have consummated their relationship. It seems that the master of amorous Victorian poetry had a secret mistress and was quite passionate about her.

Roland suspects that said mistress may have been another well-known poet named Christabel LaMotte, and he consults Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a master of the subject. At first skeptical, the icy professor of women's studies assists Roland in his hunt for further clues, and the two begin to uncover details about Ash and LaMotte that no stuffy, not nearly so gorgeous scholar had even imagined. Of course, they couldn't do any of these things without falling in love with each other; this, even though Roland has explicitly sworn off relationships with women and Maud is dating Roland's slimy, snotty, very British fellow researcher, in a role tailor-made for Hugh Grant but given instead to Toby Stephens.

Aah, but this isn't simply one of those bibliophile detective stories, a genre understandably more often seen on page than on screen. Every time Mitchell and Bailey uncover something relevant to the lives of Ash and LaMotte, the movie zooms back to their time, where the former is played by Jeremy Northam and the latter by indie queen Jennifer Ehle.

Actually, to call Possession a detective story would be to insult every detective in the history of fiction. Roland and Maud's sleuthing is completely at the mercy of other elements of the narrative, which is punctuated by "revelations" -- you could set your watch by it -- to allow LaBute the opportunity to jump a few centuries back or forward. And I was never able to purchase the lovely-as-ever Gwyneth Paltrow as a British poetry scholar, though I did bring myself to accept Eckhart as an easygoing research assistant.

The scenes set in the past are far more problematic than those in the present day. Constricted by Possession's structure, they lumber along, encumbered by the tiresomely long-winded letters and documents incessantly read in voice-over by either Eckhart, Paltrow, Northam or Ehle. It is easy to see that LaBute was trying to give these scenes the lush, romantic, ultra old-fashioned feeling of Ash's poetry, but he fails because his ardent attempts at this are evident in every frame. This tonal failure may not have been such a problem had LaBute not shoved all of his eggs into one ridiculously undersized basket: aside from his half-assed attempts at Merchant/Ivory-lite, there is nothing to justify the plot line's existence, not even dialogue.

The romance between the professor and the research assistant is hardly more successful than the one between the poets. The movie desperately wants to make us understand that Roland is Afraid of Women and that Maud Can't Get Close, and bludgeons us with these factoids every chance it has. I had no vested interest in their relationship because Possession doesn't treat them intelligently.

Judging by his first three efforts, one might come to the conclusion that Neil LaBute could care less what you think about his characters or his films, or that he does care but doesn't want you to know it. He does a complete 180 with Possession, a movie that tries so hard and so earnestly to make the viewer feel specific emotions at specific times that it sets itself on a crash course with the ground. All cinema is manipulative, but success depends on concealing that manipulation. The gears 'n wheels of Possession are more obvious than the hands of a clock, more blatant than Ash's poetry.

Grade: D

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