movie review by Karina Montgomery, Karina Montgomery's Movie Reviews
Rating: FRESH (4.5/5)
"There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of?" and this is Life. Lovely.
A preamble about the source material of the film: This is such a fantastic book, I have been eagerly awaiting this film. Of my three companions, only one knew how much I had been sucked into the novel, and none of them had read it. There are changes, big changes, of course, any dense novel needs to have some concepts simplified, smoothed; some of these I can defend artistically in adaptation, and some of them bumped this movie from Full Price to Matinee & Snacks. However, the casting is perfect, and while they lose some of the tone of the novel (by necessity) they remain true to the spirit of the story. My companions who had not read it immediately wanted to borrow or buy a copy and read it, and they all enjoyed it very much, despite my petty complaints of the "wrong" changes. But I was crying at the end like anyone.
Neil LaBute (famed for his harsh dramas In The Company of Men and Your Friends And Neighbors) sweetly directs this self-proclaimed Romance. Screenwriter David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) takes broad artistic liberties with the story, sometimes past the reasonable expectations of adaptation, but keeps the themes intact. The story is an interweaving of current-day literary scholars (Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow) who each have devoted their lives of study to two Victorian poets, respectively the fictional Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. One thing leads to another, in 2000 and 1859, and the scholars are investigating a relationship no one knew existed while we watch the relationship unfold.
Both the Victorian and Millenial pairs of hearts are opened by intellectual curiosity and finding connection in the mind, but we must not forget, the story is about poetry. Thankfully, it's not a chilly, Saganesque deconstruction of intimacy through mutual mental felicity, but a warm embrace of connection and, well, possession. It's a lovely idea but the film, by necessity, must skim over most of the joy of Maud and Roland's discoveries. Although many of the clues that drive our star-crossed scholars are derived from their overly intimate knowledge of their respective subjects' poetry, the film judiciously only uses what poetry is necessary to provide the clues and the tone of the works. Unlike the non-germane endless songs and elvish chants in Lord of the Rings, the poems of Possession inform the characters and pull readers through the mystery.
It is our fortune to know the chameleonic actor Aaron Eckhart from all of Neil LaBute's films, and Erin Brockovich. As Roland, he has so many layers, and so completely inhabits his character we cannot imagine anyone else playing the part when it is done, even if we never noticed him before. Gwyneth Paltrow is beyond perfect as Maud, though this adaptation robs her of the time to show Maud Bailey's complete transformation. Equally lovely are the rumpled Jeremy Northam and the self-contained Jennifer Ehle (she was Elizabeth in the A&E/BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth).
The film is about intimacy, but it's about the sorts of intimacy you normally don't see in film: intellectual, philosophical, poetical, emotional, even marital intimacy. It's also about secrets and knowing and wanting to Know, the reckless pursuit of Knowledge of all kinds as well: academic, sexual, romantic, a mystery of the past, a mystery of one's own life failures, and knowledge of another person's inner workings. I was fascinated, reading this book, by these modern people subjugating all else in their life to know every minutia of a long-dead person's life, when we can never really truly perceive a life across the dusty shelves of history. Under such subjugation, they know nothing else but their elusive targets. I am delighted still by the layers only hinted at in the film. To possess the subject of your study, to be possessed by the demons of love or curiosity, to possess a secret or to possess an artifact, even its meaning as heritage comes into play in this film.
The novel speaks: "There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of?" but the knowledge of them is all the record that remains. It's lovely, go see it.
Our Grade: B-
This movie could be in danger of making reading sexy. Of course, it helps that the two modern-day scholars researching a 19th-century English poet are Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. Paltrow is a highbrow British snob who helps American Eckhart piece together the secret love life of poet Jeremy Northam and his mistress, Jennifer Ehle. While working together, Paltrow and Eckhart (who has a knack for one-liners) grow closer. This time-tripping flick is In the Company of Men director Neil LaBute's most engaging and sentimental film--you can tell by the scrumptious shots of the British countryside--so even if the movie's first half hour feels like a dull English lit class, don't bail out. In the end, Possession becomes a contemporary love affair that just might seize your soul.
Love in a cold climate
Director Neil LaBute, with help from a glowing Gwyneth Paltrow, defies all expectations in his glorious, difficult and tender screen adaptation of A.S. Byatt's literary romance "Possession."
By Stephanie Zacharek
Aug. 16, 2002
Whenever a beloved book, or even just a well-respected one, gets made into a movie, people who love books and the words inside them automatically feel a degree of apprehension. If we're honest, we might admit that the question isn't always so much "Will the movie fail to capture my sense of this book?" as much as "Will the movie, simply by virtue of being a movie and not a book, disappoint me?"
On the face of it, you couldn't have picked a more inappropriate filmmaker to adapt A.S. Byatt's intimately detailed, dappled "Possession," a literary detective novel but above all a love story, than Neil LaBute, director of pictures like "In the Company of Men" and "Nurse Betty." But sometimes the wrong director can make all the difference.
LaBute's "Possession" takes significant liberties with Byatt's novel -- chief among them, he has made the story's male romantic lead, the impoverished academic researcher Roland Michell (played by Aaron Eckhart), an American instead of a student-poor Englishman. Several minor characters have been excised completely, and the novel's somewhat mannered dialogue (which is appropriate to the book's characters and works nicely on the page) has been very loosely adapted to make it swing -- in other words, it has been smoothed and streamlined and perhaps, at times, too neatly patted into effective movie speech.
But LaBute, in his infinite and marvelous wrongness, infuses his movie with a delicacy of feeling that couldn't be more right for the material. LaBute obviously approached the project with his hands and his heart open: Frame by frame, it's a humble picture, a movie that isn't afraid to be an entertainment. The subtitle of Byatt's book is "A Romance," and LaBute clearly uses that term as his touchstone. Straightforward and old-fashioned in the best possible senses of both those words, "Possession" is a movie that puts itself squarely in the service of the lovers who inhabit it.
The intricacies of Byatt's narrative sometimes means those characters aren't the easiest masters to serve. "Possession" is about two pairs of lovers, one from the past and one from the present, whose stories are woven into one thick golden plait: The first pair are the (fictitious) Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel Lamotte (Jennifer Ehle), whose illicit affair comes to light when Roland finds a lost love letter tucked between the pages of an old book. The second pair are Roland himself and Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), scholars who are devoted to the study of these poets and who set off on a search for clues about their secret connection, falling in love reluctantly and tentatively themselves.
LaBute, with the help of his fellow screenwriters David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") and Laura Jones ("High Tide," "The Portrait of a Lady"), succeeds in streamlining Byatt's intricate plot without unbraiding it completely; he seems to have grasped the urgency of preserving the spirit of Byatt's rich language and multilayered, poetic details, while intuiting the potential dangers of getting lost in its misty quagmires.
But best of all, with "Possession" LaBute offers us one of the most delectable surprises of moviegoing: He has defied our expectations. I've never been a fan of LaBute's movies. The things his defenders like about him -- what they see as his "edginess," humor or absolute modernity -- I have perceived as a strained and pretentious sanctimoniousness; he has had a tendency to condescend to his characters, the better to make audiences feel good about themselves in the cheapest, easiest fashion.
In "In the Company of Men," in which two slick middle-management types cruelly seduce a beautiful deaf woman just for sport, LaBute used his characters as programmed voiceboxes for his prefab views on sexual politics, devising an elaborately contrived situation to prove what scumbags men can be. (If they're such scumbags by nature, why does he need so much contrivance to prove it?) "Nurse Betty" purportedly entreated us to share one woman's feel-good delusional daydream, but it was really an invitation for would-be sophisticates to laugh at her dopey middle-American hopes and motivations.
Hardcore LaBute fans may find "Possession" an oddity at the very least and a betrayal of his talents at worst. But "Possession" marks the first time LaBute has wrapped a picture in any kind of warmth -- which may sound strange, considering it's a very carefully made picture that is at least partly about English reserve and caution when it comes to love. But in some ways, the sleek warmth of "Possession" is more immediately appealing than the burled wordiness of the book. (Byatt's book is brilliant, but it contains a few too many examples of the author's pitch-perfect re-creations of Victorian-era poetry -- she works what starts out as a wonderful, gorgeous, multi-hued tapestry of a joke into a threadbare carpet.)
One of Byatt's subjects in "Possession" (she gets around to it eventually and indirectly) is the inedequacy of words to plumb the depths of real passion. LaBute puts that idea squarely at the center of his movie, showing us how Maud and Roland negotiate their love gingerly and cautiously, while the Victorians, after testing the waters with a few carefully phrased letters, plunge right in. Because they know the full power of words, the poets are more hardnosed about the limitations of those words; the academics, on the other hands, know only words -- signifiers of feelings instead of, as the Victorian poets would have had it, messengers that allow those feelings to take wing.
That's a fairly subtle idea for a motion picture, but LaBute gently and unobtrusively guides his performers to the heart of it. Paltrow's Maud Bailey is a crisp, no-nonsense academic at a small English university who seems to be making her way through her life and her work with an efficient clickety-clack -- her specialty is women's studies, and the poems of Christabel LaMotte are a special interest, partly because Bailey herself is distantly related to the poet.
Eckhart's Roland (whose specialty in this his-and-hers mix is the poet Ash) is much further down on the academic food chain -- he's a lowly researcher who's constantly short of funds. He contacts Maud, seeking her advice and counsel on the secret love letter he's found. When she meets him at the train station, the first we see of her is a pair of extremely soft, extremely tasteful and extremely expensive low-heeled black boots: Maud Bailey is not one of those stereotypically scattered, frizzy-haired, mother-hen academics, but one whose approach to everything she does is as tightly wound and controlled as her long golden hair, which is always (for reasons the movie, like the book, explains) wrapped in a tight little bun.
Paltrow plays Maud with so much coolness that she holds us, and not just Roland, at arm's length for much of the movie. But it's what makes the gradual, almost pointillistic way in which she opens up to Roland that much more believable. Eckhart, in a beautifully shaded performance, plays Roland not as an unlikably brash American but as a ruggedly expressive one -- in other words, the kind of American who isn't distasteful to Englishpeople but who is still decidedly and unequivocally foreign. Badly shaven, his hair perpetually standing up as if he's just yanked a polo-neck over his head, he's so raffish and casual that you almost wonder how he found his way into the midst of all these English academics and their flowery poets to begin with.
But as Eckhart reveals them to us, Roland's most deeply American qualities serve the story precisely. That he's a stranger in a strange land (his dedication as an academic makes him belong in this setting, but his Americanness sets him forever apart) is a metaphor for how foreign we sometimes feel to ourselves when we're falling in love.
Eckhart and Paltrow play their gradual coming together with a kind of prickly unease that's both frustrating and pleasurable, as well as wholly believable. Paltrow may be one of those rare American actresses who's more believable as an Englishwoman: Her slow, reserved smile, and that shy and coltish way she has of bowing her head (like a girl who believes she's too tall to pass through any doorway), are the qualities that make her most touching here.
Roland and Maud's meeting is the beginning of an adventure in which they track down the complete cache of letters exchanged between Christabel and Ash (she is always referred to by her first name, and he by his last). Their search for the truth of the poets' relationship is hampered by Sir George (Graham Crowden), a crotchety old man who believes the letters belong to him; Cropper (Trevor Eve, in a performance that's both suitably oily and dried-out), an acquisitive American academic who's more interested in the trappings of Ash's life than in his actual work; and Roland's boss, Blackadder (Tom Hickey), a scattered but benign scholar who has buried himself in the minutiae of Ash's life and letters.
It must have been LaBute's intention that the sections of the movie dealing with Christabel and Ash are the most vivid and most deeply romantic. Northam, who can be wonderful or woodenly self-conscious, is at his best here -- he shields his poet's heart with a businesslike Victorian reserve, but he always lets you hear it beating. And Ehle's Christabel is quietly sensational: With her prim smile and mischievously glittering eyes, she captures the essence of a difficult and intelligent woman who freely chooses a passionate and open life, fully aware that it's bound to bring her only sorrow.
Their scenes together are less uneasily electric than those between Eckhart and Paltrow -- the current between them is more like rushing water than the sizzle (or fizzle) of connecting wires. They're the picture of a certain romantic ideal that's wholly organic in its perfection and intensity -- but even if, technically, they're human stand-ins for the lushest ideas of the Victorian age, the movie makes sure we believe in them as people, too.
LaBute -- an American and a Mormon -- approaches England as a polite outsider, and it works. Parts of the picure are set in Yorkshire, and LaBute and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier offer us an affectionate and clear-eyed view of the English countryside and its people. In one of the movie's most understated jokes, a crisp young Yorkshire innkeeper patiently listens to Roland and Maud's protestations that they're colleagues and simply must have separate rooms by responding drily, "I'm sure it's more complicated than I can imagine."
LaBute's production designer, Luciana Arrighi ("Howard's End"), gives us settings drenched in rich, muted plums and browns, occasionally shot through with golden Pre-Raphaelite touches. And LaBute finds simple, breathtakingly effective ways of connecting the Victorian-era story with the present-day one: As Roland and Maud rush down a country road in a modern car and disappear from view, a 19th-century locomotive puffs into sight along the ridge above them, headed in the opposite direction.
"Possession" is the type of richly resonant movie that Karel Reisz should have made from John Fowles' ominously vibrant and romantic "The French Lieutenant's Woman" but didn't. LaBute approaches his material both intelligently and intuitively, fully aware of the idea that a movie version of a novel is always a newly created world.
That can be a thankless job for any filmmaker. When it comes to bringing books to the screen, the critic Robin Wood has noted, "There is no such thing as a faithful adaptation." According to Wood, the idea of faithful adaptation implies that "film is the inferior art, and should be content (or even proud) to reproduce precisely what it can never hope to reproduce: the movement of the author's words on paper."
LaBute knew he couldn't represent that movement, and didn't even try. Instead, he chose to work in a kind of vernacular shorthand that feels modern and emotionally direct -- he doesn't shrink from passion where it's called for.
As Roland and Maud, making up after a tiff and moving closer to enjoying their first real kiss as lovers (there has been an earlier one, but it doesn't really count), Roland looks at her intently and explains, "I just want to see if there's an 'us' in 'you and me.'"
In the audience I saw the movie with, a few people tittered, perhaps embarrassed by the sheer "movieness" of the line. But for Roland and Maud, in so many ways more constricted than their Victorian counterparts, the line is its own kind of fervent and deeply felt poetry -- a sentence that's Victorian in timbre if not in eloquence. By the end of the movie, Maud and Roland have fallen in love slowly, carefully, tentatively, as modern lovers so often do, negotiating every possible contingency and pitfall in advance. They may be less tortured than their Victorian friends, and yet somehow they're sadder for not being able to rush at love headlong.
Even so, we walk away from the movie with some fragile hopefulness for their future. Christabel and Ash may have had a love that extended beyond the grave, but in life, it took months and torrents of words before they found the courage to touch fingertips. Even timeless love has to start out tentatively, shakily -- maybe that's the jarring needed to set the clock's hands in perpetual motion.
Movie review, 'Possession'
By Michael Wilmington
Films based on esteemed literary works can either delight or disappoint us, and "Possession," Neil LaBute's adaptation of the A.S. Byatt novel about love and detection in the groves of British academe is a polished, luscious-looking misfire. LaBute's film takes Byatt's ingeniously imagined novel -- a double tale of a romance between two modern English literary researchers (played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart) who fall in love while uncovering a similar affair between two great 19th-century British poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) -- and turns it into a gorgeous, somnolent show that is splendidly mummified and thoroughly unsurprising.
The story follows the adventures of Roland Mitchell (Eckhart), an ambitious but slightly threadbare young scholar working for crusty Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) in a collection devoted to (fictitious) 19th century poet Randolph Henry Ash. Roland discovers and steals a letter which suggests that Ash, hitherto famed as an exemplary family man, had a secret erotic life.
Soon, Roland's investigations lead him to a startling suspicion: that Ash's secret correspondent was Christabel La Motte, another (equally fictitious) great poet, hitherto considered a probable lesbian and trailblazing feminist icon. Aided by his fellow scholar (and Christabel's grand-niece), Maud Bailey (Paltrow), a feminist not initially anxious to unveil her grand-aunt as a practicing heterosexual, Roland follows the poetic couple's tracks and unearths more letters and clues, all the while a step ahead of rival Ash researchers: the crass and greedy Cropper (Trevor Eve) and his duplicitous aide (and Maud's ex-lover) Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens).
Adaptation is an art, and LaBute ("Nurse Betty") lacks the right artfulness here. Working with respect but not much inspiration, he sacrifices or overly condenses much of what really made "Possession" a surprise best-seller -- its deliciously wry and learned unveiling of the petty scandals and intrigues of the academic world and its wondrous pastiches of 19th century poems and letters -- and replaces it with an attempt at grand movie romance. Acres of sylvan scenery and middle shots of the dazzling Paltrow and hunky Eckhart are juxtaposed with shots of suave Northam and the radiant Ehle. (Ehle looks so much here like Meryl Streep in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" that the movie almost suggests visual plagiarism.)
There's no denying that "Possession" looks great. French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier (Leon Carax's main collaborator and also the photographer of "Nurse Betty") shot the panoramas of rural Britain and modern London and Paris. The production design is by Luciana Arrighi of "Howard's End." But it's a waste of splendid resources, not the least being star Paltrow, the British countryside and the novel itself -- and some of its strategies are dubious.
The lithe, uncommonly sparkly Paltrow may be a convincing, delightful Brit, as she was in "Emma," but LaBute's decision to change Roland from a put-upon, working-class Briton to a brash, sexy young American (well enough handled by Eckhart) is too incongruous. It's hard to believe the gingerness of Roland and Maud starting their affair, harder still to accept the relative alacrity with which Randolph and Christabel fall into theirs.
Like too many recent filmmakers working with highly literary books, LaBute tries too hard to be cinematic. Yet, since one of the major themes of the story is the way you can detect a writer's private life and feelings in their works, it's a mistake to so seldom quote the Ash and LaMotte poetry (which Byatt produced for her novel in wondrous profusion). "Possession" needs the author's voice, or a narrator. The best novel adaptations are usually those that best preserve the tone flavor and voice of the book: David Lean's Charles Dickens films, and Stanley Kubrick's adaptations of Nabokov's "Lolita" and Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange."
I think a brilliant film could have been made from "Possession" using the same cast as this one, but with Tom Stoppard (the obvious choice) as screenwriter. LaBute, who can be very rough on American culture, may be too much in love with British sophistication and British literature -- and even Paltrow and Eckhart -- to do this film justice. "Possession" needs a sharp eye, a wicked tongue, less reverence and much more of its author's voice.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Los Angeles Times
'Possession' Is Lost With Just One Misstep
By KENNETH TURAN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
AUDIO: Kenneth Turan on NPR (08/16/02)
There's no zeal like the zeal of the newly converted, and so it is that sections of Neil LaBute's frustratingly uneven version of "Possession" just about glow with a satisfying romantic warmth not only unknown but even anathema to the writer-director's earlier work.
When his "In the Company of Men" debut was followed quickly by "Your Friends & Neighbors," LaBute acquired a reputation for icy misanthropy that not even the nominally cheerier "Nurse Betty" could dispel. With A.S. Byatt's novel, however, LaBute was taking on a distinctly different kind of material.
Literate, thrilling and philosophical, a ripping detective yarn as well as a pleasing romance, the Booker Prize-winning "Possession" was one of the most satisfying novels of the 1990s, blessed with a smashing premise expertly worked out.
That was the notion of following a pair of English scholars investigating the incendiary secret lives of two Victorian poets, and the present day academics find themselves more attracted to each other the deeper they dig into the past.
With the work of a crack production team (including production designer Luciana Arrighi and costume designer Jenny Beavan ) and luminously photographed by Jean Yves Escoffier, the film echoes the book in cutting back and forth between then and now. It reveals the raptures and difficulties of the Victorian couple (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle), as well as the exertions, romantic and otherwise, of the modern pair (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart).
Although his sensibility has been exclusively contemporary up to now, LaBute (who shares screenwriting credit with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones) shows a surprising facility for the lush romance of the film's Victorian sections.
LaBute's natural coolness actually enhances these scenes, as his affinity for the delicacy and restraint of the period makes the characters' passion stand out that much more clearly.
Yet sure as his hand is in the historical segments, LaBute can't avoid a fatal mistake in the modern era: He's changed the male academic from a lower-class Brit to an American, a choice that upsets the novel's exquisite balance and shreds the fabric of the film, corrupting all of LaBute's good work and robbing it of the impact it would otherwise have.
Given that the role went to Eckhart, an actor who's been in each of his previous works, the feeling is inescapable that LaBute sacrificed the integrity of the piece so he could work with someone he felt comfortable with--though he claims the actor was not on his mind when he made the change.
Although fitting a 555-page book into an hour and 42 minutes of screen time entails a considerable amount of compression as well as the excising of the novel's philosophical underpinnings, overall, "Possession" hews to the outline of the book.
Roland Michell (Eckhart) is a scruffy American academic in London on a research fellowship studying the life and work of the revered Randolph Henry Ash, the poet laureate to Queen Victoria.
Sitting in a library and turning the pages of Ash's personal copy of a weighty philosophical tome to record the poet's marginalia, Michell comes across two drafts of a previously unknown and provocatively intimate letter Ash, celebrated for his marital fidelity, had written to an unknown woman.
Through some intrepid sleuthing, Michell determines that the likely recipient of the letter was Christabel LaMotte, a proto-feminist poet and writer of fairy tales who was also, most intriguingly of all, a lesbian.
Michell finds this out from the world's foremost authority on LaMotte, the svelte Dr. Maud Bailey (Paltrow being convincingly British one more time).
She's a gender studies specialist whose icy hauteur and ivory cameo good looks make her, in Byatt's words, "a most untouchable woman."
Naturally these two take an instant dislike to each other, something that, given Michell's partiality for oafish phrases like "how's it hanging," make perfect sense from Bailey's point of view.
Still, the American convinces her that the possibility of a relationship between Ash and LaMotte is worth investigating. If, as he typically puts it, "Mr. Fidelity had this Shakespearean dark-lady thing going on," it would astound the academic world. So off they go, following clues across England and trying to stay ahead of rival scholars who've gotten a whiff of the same story.
Simultaneous with the moderns investigating the past, "Possession" actually shows us what the Victorians were up to, and these are the film's best moments. Not only is the period atmosphere, with its conscious echoes of "The French Lieutenant's Woman," richly re-created, not only do Northam and Ehle fully inhabit their roles, but from their first verbal joustings--Ash says "you cut me, madam," and she replies, "I'm sorry, I only meant to scratch"--these characters have all the good lines. Leaving these segments for modern times is invariably painful.
That's especially the case because Eckhart's fish-out-of-water persona is such an awkward mistake. His character is too brusque, too insistently crude, too eager to say things like "I'm sort of a brush-and-flush kind of guy," to be anything more than a major irritant. It's as if LaBute couldn't bear to leave well enough alone, couldn't resist placing an intrusive mark on the proceedings.
This is especially unfortunate because today's couple is, by the nature of modern life, more whiny and tendentious than the Victorians and thus less fun to observe.
We can't go back to a time when a glimpse of bare shoulder took someone's breath away, but both parts of "Possession" will make you wish that we could.
Literary critics worked up a lather over Possession, A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel about two modern academics who work up a lather when they discover the secret love letters of two Victorian poets. It was clear that Hollywood would eventually try to transform Byatt's scholarly prose into panting screen images.
Possession on film had all the makings of a disaster. Then Neil LaBute decided to direct it and to collaborate on the script with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones. Yes, that Neil LaBute, the hard-core moralist who gave us In the Company of Men, about two guys who f--- a deaf girl over, and Your Friends and Neighbors, about two couples who f--- each other over. It's true that LaBute went a little softer with Nurse Betty -- if you don't count Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock scalping that guy at the beginning -- but Possession called for delicacy in delineating the clash between the romantic past and the raunchy present. You expect LaBute to ace the modern part of the story -- he doesn't. Even with Gwyneth Paltrow -- a crisp Brit accent in place -- as Maud Bailey, who specializes in Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). And even with LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart as Roland Michell, the brash American (British in the novel) who knows all about Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), the poet laureate to Queen Victoria. It's Roland who finds the letters that suggest Randolph -- known for poems dedicated to his wife -- was having it on with Christabel. And that Christabel, though involved in a lesbian relationship with her friend Sabine (Elodie French), may have had a love child with Randolph.
Jeez, those Victorians. That's the thing with Possession: The alleged prudes stir up all the heat. As Maud and Roland retrace the steps of Christabel and Randolph's affair in 1859, a spark is supposed to ignite between the cool academics. LaBute and cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier do a remarkable job showing the two couples practically breathing the same air. With one camera swipe, Maud and Roland enter a bedroom just as Christabel and Randolph exit.
But despite the good efforts of Paltrow and Eckhart, the modern love story pales beside its predecessor. Ehle, an actress of dazzling grace, and Northam, an actor born for Byronic romance, bring real fire to their roles. Did the Victorians have hotter sex than we do? You bet, says this movie. Made in an era of casual screwing, Possession aches for a time when secret lovers could turn their passion into unbridled poetry. Maud and Roland's search for an unknowable past makes for a haunting literary detective story, but LaBute pulls off a neater trick in Possession: He makes language sexy.
(September 5, 2002)
Poetical Flesh and Blood Proves a Strong Tonic
By A. O. SCOTT
For some readers of "Possession," A. S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning 1990 novel, the long stretches of mock-Victorian poetry were the high points; for others, Ms. Byatt's virtuoso parodies of Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson were there to be skipped over, since they slowed down enjoyment of her teasingly suspenseful melange of historical sleuthing, academic intrigue and breathless, old-fashioned romance. The new film adaptation of "Possession," directed by Neil LaBute, is likely to appeal to the second group of readers, since Mr. LaBute has wisely kept on-screen recitation to a minimum and completely omitted reference to "Ask to Embla," the mythopoetic magnum opus that functions in the novel as a kind of Rosetta stone of secret, literary love.
Mr. LaBute, who wrote the script with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, still has more than enough to work with: two parallel chronicles of highbrow love interwoven with a scholarly detective story. The present-day romance involves two young researchers, an American graduate student named Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) and a British junior professor named Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow, her hair drawn back into an impeccable bun and her syllables shaped into an equally impeccable over-educated upper-middle-class English accent). Roland works as an indentured researcher for one of the world's two rival experts on the life and work of Randolph Ash, a giant of 19th-century letters. Maud's specialty is Christabel LaMotte, a contemporary of Ash whose independence of spirit and unapologetic if discreet lesbianism have made her a latter-day feminist heroine.
One day in the archives, Roland discovers some manuscript pages, in Ash's hand, which appear to be letters to an unknown woman, perhaps Christabel LaMotte herself. Maud, who is at first skeptical of this hypothesis (and of Roland, since she holds onto anti-Yank prejudices without which a movie like this could barely survive), joins her reckless colleague on a search for further clues. Their own tentative stirrings of interest -- he has sworn off relationships altogether; she has an on-again off-again thing going with an especially smarmy young Ash scholar -- are interwoven with the grand passion of their research subjects. Often, rather than cut from one century to another, Mr. LaBute slowly pans from Roland and Maud to Randolph and Christabel (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle), a technique that suggests both the proximity of the past and its distance.
One of the central ideas in Ms. Byatt's novel is that romantic love is at once the product of particular cultural and historical circumstances and the expression of a universal, transhistorical impulse. Mr. LaBute clearly grasps the idea and is fascinated by it, but seems unsure how to give it dramatic shape on screen. The book depends on the contrast between the immensely learned, volcanically passionate Victorians and their timid, bureaucracy-minded descendants. Maud and Roland are redeemed from their dull, cautious modern lives only when they are infected by the wildness and grandeur of Randolph and Christabel -- a clever, knowing reversal of the standard idea that the salient difference between their time and ours is between repression and liberation. Ms. Byatt's dead poets represent a life force that gives color and definition to the pale modern lovers. In Mr. LaBute's version, the picture is reversed: the 19th century, as so often in the movies, is a dimly lighted, heavily costumed fantasy world, a shadow of the vivid familiarity of late-20th-century London.
We never quite understand what motivates the ardent poets to stray from domestic stability into a risky, headlong affair. The present-minded Mr. LaBute is unable to imagine his way into the literary basis of their attraction. These are people intoxicated by words and bound together by letters, and Mr. LaBute is ultimately too suspicious of art, including his own, to believe that it could transport people into danger and into each other's arms. Mr. Northam and Ms. Ehle do their best to suggest their characters' almost unbearably complex inner lives, but Mr. LaBute's interest in them is limited. Christabel and Randolph are at once supremely intelligent and utterly earnest, a combination that flummoxes the director, a glib postmodernist for whom the two qualities are almost by definition antithetical.
But when examining Roland and Maud, his own contemporaries, Mr. LaBute shows unusual compassion. In his plays and in his first two films, "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," he tends to subject romantic sincerity to brutal, cynical deflation. Even the superficially gentler "Nurse Betty" insisted that romance was a delusion and that solitude was the only viable form of freedom. But in "Possession," which opens today nationwide, the rules of romantic comedy have been laid out for him by a literary intelligence to which he properly defers, and what results is an unusually smart and credible example of the genre. While Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Eckhart are much better looking than anyone I remember from my own sojourn in academia, they capture the arrogance and insecurity of junior scholars perfectly, as if they had researched the parts by venturing out incognito to mingle with the strivers and job-seekers at a Modern Language Association convention.
While Mr. LaBute, surprisingly enough, shows himself adept at romance, he falters when the story calls for suspense. The high-stakes race to find and authenticate the Ash-LaMotte correspondence is squeezed into an annoying subplot, and Mr. LaBute is too clumsy to translate the exquisite, maddening narrative drive that Ms. Byatt sustains for more than 400 pages. Still, his heart is, for once, in the right place, and "Possession" is in the end an honorable, interesting failure. It falls far short of poetry, but it's not bad prose.
New York Observer
It's True: A Charming German Love Story, With Great Food
by Andrew Sarris
LaBute's Victorians, Less Repressed Than We Are
Neil LaBute's Possession, from a screenplay by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and Mr. LaBute, based on the novel by A.S. Byatt, labors strenuously to activate and enliven two love stories, one set in our postmodern period, the other in the Victorian era. As is so often the case with this kind of double-entry bookkeeping enterprise, in which the present is pitted against the past, the Victorians come out better than we do.
The story involves two initially unrelated and unconnected literary researchers who follow in the footsteps of their subjects and thereby uncover a secret adulterous love affair of long ago, adding spice to their own budding personal relationship. The jest is that the Victorian lovers are more audacious and less repressed than their counterparts in our own supposedly liberated age.
Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a reputable English academic who is doing research on the life and work of a Victorian poet named Christabel La-Motte (Jennifer Ehle) when she encounters Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), a brash American scholar in England on a fellowship to study the renowned Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). Ash was the poet laureate to Queen Victoria but is now better known for a collection of passionate late-life poems ostensibly dedicated to his wife.
Maud is taken aback at first by Roland's impetuousness, but when they come upon a treasure trove of letters that appear to be written by Ash to LaMotte, they follow a trail of clues drawn from the letters all across England, thus re-enacting the daring journey of the Victorian couple over a century earlier. Somehow, Ms. Ehle and Mr. Northam seem more relaxed in their well-practiced Masterpiece Theatre roles than Ms. Paltrow and Mr. Eckhart do as their modern academic counterparts. After all, Ms. Ehle and Mr. Northam are British to the bone for any age (though Ms. Ehle was born and partly raised in the States), whereas Ms. Paltrow is faux-British, though generally convincing, as in her much-honored run-through in John Madden's Shakespeare in Love (1998), and Aaron Eckhart is playing a character rewritten from the book's working-class Briton to the film's comparatively classless American.
The production looks better than it plays, possibly because the witheringly misanthropic and misogynous Mr. LaBute is a strange choice to direct a double-tiered love story, even though he claims to have taken a literary interest in Ms. Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize--winning novel. It is not that Mr. LaBute's direction is unduly harsh and abrasive, but rather that the projection of feelings tends to be flat and tepid. Also, the book crackles with the author's sharp literary distinctions among the various fashionable options for scholars trying to resurrect the past. One cannot blame Mr. LaBute and his colleagues for failing to catch all the nuances of the novel on the screen. This is the familiar hazard of attempting to transfer bookish books to even an art-house film. Something is inevitably lost in the translation, and there is not enough cinematic red meat to take up the slack.
Ultimately, the film never recovers from the clumsy cliche of the ugly American abroad, and the too-frosty exterior Ms. Paltrow employs to authenticate her British persona is another liability. If I were a travel agent rather than a movie reviewer, however, I could wholeheartedly recommend the film for its marvelous location shooting in London and elsewhere in England.
This column ran on page 21 in the 8/19/02 edition of The New York Observer.
"A lovely and beautifully photographed romance."
-- Richard Roeper, EBERT & ROEPER
New York Observer
by Rex Reed
Lush and literate, Neil LaBute's Possession is two love stories for the price of one, unfolding simultaneously in different centuries. It is risky, intelligent, romantic and rapturous from start to finish. In the hollow summer of 2002, I'd call it something of a miracle.
Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an ambitious American with a fellowship at the British Museum who accidentally discovers a long-lost love letter he believes was sent by Queen Victoria's poet laureate, Randolph Henry Ash, to the controversial feminist Christabel LaMotte. Being a brazen and unscrupulous Yank, he filches it and takes it to Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a brilliant academic who is both appalled and skeptical. She's been researching the life of this legendary Victorian nonconformist for years. Randolph was a starchy, stable, conservative family man whose letters to his wife will soon be the focus of a centennial museum celebration of his life and work. Christabel was a bohemian author and liberated lesbian who was years ahead of her time. There is no evidence that the two poets ever met, much less slept together. If true, this discovery could be a sensation in the academic world. The deeper they delve into the journals, diaries and correspondence of Randolph's wife Ellen and Christabel's lover Blanche, the closer they get to opening a new door in their own lives. Tracing the footsteps of two icons from another century--even sleeping in the same country inn where the clandestine lovers met and made love--the two moderns, who have vowed never to become emotionally involved, begin to lower their defenses and relive history.
As they reluctantly find each other, the film shifts in time to the Victorian love story with elegance, charm and period costumes that take the breath away. Ms. Paltrow, cool and patrician, and Mr. Eckhart, scruffy and vulnerable, make an extremely sexy pair of contemporary lovers, while Jennifer Ehle, looking like Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Jeremy Northam, in his Oscar Wilde waistcoats, do more with their facial expressions than their actions. Sometimes the two worlds merge only a few feet apart, and the parallels between 1859 and today prove that in affairs of the heart, both periods are remarkably similar: The two stories begin with curiosity and move into stages of passion and tragedy. The equation between the two sets of characters and the two societies finds a perfect balance, as the present often becomes an unexpected mirror to the past. The stunningly complex fusion of Austen complicity and Pinter obsession can be both warm and wrenching.
Mr. LaBute may seem, on the surface, a surprising choice to bring A.S. Byatt's prize-winning source material to the screen, since his films have always been more about sexual power than romantic love. But the direction is meticulous, the study in contrasts is fascinating, and the film makes a convincing argument that sexual politics between men and women haven't changed much, regardless of the time frame in which they occur. The two sets of lovers are perfectly cast, the performances are piercingly true, and Mr. LaBute's tender, nonjudgmental approach pays handsome dividends. The message, finally, is "Love is worth the risk." After the battles, the victories and losses in this remarkable film cannot fail to leave you shaken. Possession opens on Aug. 16. Put it at the top of your must-see list. Trust me on this; you'll be glad you did.
This column ran on page 24 in the 8/12/02 edition of The New York Observer.
Posted: Thurs., Aug. 8, 2002, 10:00pm PT
By TODD MCCARTHY
Abstract: One of the most densely literary popular novels of recent times, A.S. Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize winner "Possession" defies comprehensive cinematic adaptation. The book's wizardry with words and form remains untranslatable, leaving the filmmakers with the lesser but still formidable task of dealing with the source's surfaces, characters and plot.
The full text of this review, including cast, credits, rating, running time, and (for many reviews) photos, video trailers, opening date and box office history, is available only to subscribers.
New York Post
COURT & SPARK
By LOU LUMENICK
Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow are an unlikely couple, who, naturally, fall in love in the lush romance "Possession."
August 16, 2002
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
"The French Lieutenant's Woman" for dummies - and fairly satisfying at that.
HARD-BOILED cynic Neil LaBute is the unlikely director of "Possession," a lush, genteel romance of the Merchant-Ivory school that qualifies as a guilty pleasure - largely because of the unexpected chemistry between its improbably matched leads, Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart.
Eckhart, who starred in LaBute's caustic "In the Company of Men" and "Nurse Betty" (he also played the biker boyfriend in "Erin Brockovich"), is surprisingly ingratiating as Roland, an American academic on a fellowship in London who makes an amazing discovery in the Royal Library.
Tucked away in a book is the draft of a letter by a fictitious Victorian poet laureate named Randolph Henry Ash - famed for odes proclaiming his devotion to his wife - suggesting he had something going on the side with an obscure feminist poet, Christabel LaMotte.
Roland approaches Maud (Paltrow, in her most affecting and least actressy performance in many years), a frosty Brit professor who's an expert on her ancestor LaMotte. She condescendingly dismisses, at least at first, the idea that LaMotte, who was living in a lesbian relationship, would have anything to do with a "soft-core misogynist" like Ash.
But confronted with the letter that Roland has stolen, the horrified-but-secretly delighted Maud takes the scruffy American off to an ancient family estate. Rummaging through the attic in the best tradition of Nancy Drew, they unearth a hidden cache of hugely incriminating correspondence between Ash and LaMotte.
Much like the movie of "The French Lieutenant's Woman," LaBute cuts back and forth between Maud and Roland, who has his own commitment issues, warily circling each other - and the clandestine off-and-on relationship between Ash (Jeremy Northam of "Gosford Park") and LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle of "Sunshine") and how it affects their respective significant others, played by Holly Aird and Lena Headey.
LaBute cleverly has his two sets of lovers interacting on the same England locations, which have been decorated and costumed by some Merchant-Ivory veterans and photographed by Jean Yves Escoffier in such a fetching manner you may well be heading straight for the British Airways Web site afterward.
Dumbed down from A.S. Byatt's award-winning but densely literary and unfilmable novel - the director shares credit for the zinger-free screenplay with Henry David Hwang ("M Butterfly") and Aussie Laura Jones ("Oscar and Lucinda") - the movie has no profounder point to make other than that its present-day lovers are more repressed than their Victorian counterparts.
It's hard not to groan a little when Roland, in the manner of a '40s Warner Bros. costume picture, literally asks Maud to let down her hair.
But it's still great fun to know that this bickering, mismatched twosome will end up in bed together - even if they do nothing more steamy than uneasily steal a brief kiss while reading poetry.
Though it touches on lesbianism and adultery and boasts a couple of grave-robbing rival academics, "Possession" is so discreet that you can safely bring your elderly aunt.
The Movie Mom
Review by Nell Minow
Category: Based on a book
Release Date: 08/09/2002
Director(s): Neil LaBute
Rated: PG-13 for sexual references and situations
Audience: 14 and up
Profanity: Some strong language
Nudity/Sexual References: Sexual situations and references, including adultery and homosexuality
Alcohol/Drug Abuse: Drinking and smoking
Violence/Scariness: Tense scenes, suicide, grave-robbing
Tolerance/Diversity Issues: All major characters white
No one thinks more carefuly about words than poets, scholars, and detectives. All three come together in two parallel love stories spanning two centuries, based on the astonishingly inventive, dauntingly intellectual, but rapturously romantic novel by A.S. Byatt.
Neil LaBute, best known for his harrowing and very contemporary portrayals of bitter, selfish, and manipulative people and abusive relationships in "Your Friends and Neighbors" and "In the Company of Men," is an unexpected choice for this film. It required him to adapt someone else's material, work with settings in another time and place, and portray relationships with genuine respect and intimacy. While he is not able to master the scope of the novel, the result is smart, satisfying, and fun.
Aaron Eckert (star of all of LaBute's films and the biker boyfriend in "Erin Brockovich") plays Roland Michell, a scholar of English literature who gets little respect because he is (1) a lowly research assistant and (2) American. Assigned the trivial task of leafing through a famous 19th century poet's personal copy of a science book, in case the poet made any interesting marginal notes, he makes an astounding discovery.
The poet, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northern), was famous for his devotion to his wife and is thought to have been completely faithful to her. But between the pages of the old book are early drafts of what appear to be Ash's love letters to another woman. Impulsively, Roland takes the pages. They are potentially a career-making discovery. But more important, they are exactly the kind of scholarly mystery that fires his mind and spirit.
Roland decides that the Ash letters may have been written to Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a minor poet. Roland goes to meet with Maud Bailey, (Gwyneth Paltrow), a professor, who is not only an expert on LaMotte, but also a great-niece. From there, the story goes back and forth between the two sets of lovers.
This is a high-gloss romance with pretty people falling in love. Forget bodice-ripping -- bodice untying is conclusively shown to be even more voluptuous. But the subtlety and complexity of the novel is lost. There are vestiges about some ambitious thoughts about love, honor, risk, emotional and intellectual precision, and even scholarship, but what remains is a nice date movie, but not much more.
Parents should know that the movie has sexual situations and references, including sex between unmarried couples, a lesbian relationship, and an out of wedlock pregnancy. Roland and Maud almost become sexually involved when he stops, telling her that he has hurt others in the past and does not want to become physically intimate until they have a better sense of their relationship. A character commits suicide. Characters steal documents of great value. There is some strong language, and characters smoke and drink. Some audience members may be upset by scenes of an unauthorized exhumation.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the two couples are alike and how they are different, and they should talk about the decisions made by Ash and LaMotte to become involved with each other despite prior relationships. Who was hurt by what they did? What do we know about Roland's and Maud's prior relationships, and how did they help and hurt the development of their relationship with each other? What led them to trust -- and mistrust -- each other? What was the right thing for Roland to do when he discovered Ash's draft letters? How much is it fair for us to learn about historical figures and what do we do with that information?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the book, Possession: A Romance, with extraordinarily poems "by" Ash and LaMotte. They will also enjoy another story that counterpoises a 19th century love story with a contemporary one, The French Lieutenant's Woman with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.
Friday, August 16, 2002
Drained of poetry, 'Possession' lacks life
By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic
Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow play Roland and Maud, two modern-day scholars on the trail of a literary mystery.
Before seeing "Possession," I might have described Neil LaBute as a fearless director -- his previous works ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors," "Nurse Betty") unflinchingly explored the dark, twisted side of male/female relationships. Now, alas, it's clear that he does have a fear: Victorian poetry.
A.S. Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel is a delicious wallow in the sensuous pleasure of words. It's the tale of two British academics wending their way through dusty library stacks and ancestral homes, on the trail of a literary mystery involving two mid-Victorian poets. Through poetry, letters and journal entries, the book effortlessly swings between two time periods.
You can't really fault LaBute for making the story less complex, because of the time constraints imposed by the movie form. But in distilling the book for the screen, he and his co-writers have drained the life neatly out of it. What remains is an often-pretty film, but without poetry and without spirit.
Gwyneth Paltrow, with a breathy English accent and precisely applied lipstick, does a careful ice-queen routine as Maud, a scholar researching the life of poet Christabel LaMotte. Aaron Eckhart, a fine actor and LaBute regular, is hopelessly miscast as Roland, who's studying Victorian poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash. Eckhart manfully wears academic three-day stubble and a hideous corduroy jacket with elbow patches. LaBute does everything but have him pull out a pipe, to no avail -- the actor simply looks uncomfortable. And the character has been changed from British to American, leading to some surprisingly awkward humor. (Where's Roland, somebody at his workplace wonders. "Off trafficking drugs," says a professor. Because, ha-ha, that's what all Americans do, even those in corduroy blazers.)
After Roland makes a discovery (in a mysteriously un-dusty book) of Ash and LaMotte's connection, he and Maud begin their sleuthing -- and their on-and-off-and-on-and-off attraction, during which poor Roland implores the tightly controlled Maud to let her hair breathe. (Wouldn't a little conditioner take care of that?)
Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam play Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash, the Victorian-era poets at the heart of the mystery.
The poets, in elegantly filmed flashbacks, get far less screen time, and Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle strive mightily to do something with their underwritten scenes. Ehle spends the entire movie with a tiny, Meryl Streep-like smile on her lips -- there's a world of secrets behind that smile, but we don't get to learn them.
Which leads us to what may be the essential quandary of "Possession" -- how do you make an audience care about writers, if you can't or won't show what they write? The makers of the movie seem afraid to dip into the language of poetry, perhaps for fear that multiplex audiences will run away screaming -- but they haven't left much else behind.
A few moments in "Possession" are stirring -- there's a lovely scene of letters being blown in the wind, reminding us of the ephemeral nature of paper, and of lives gone. And of course, for many of us, just seeing the British Museum in a movie gets the bloodstream going. But LaBute's trademark bite is absent here -- his movie feels trivial next to the book that inspired it. Maybe "Possession" is simply unfilmable, and deserves to remain on the page.
Movie News & Reviews
A love story in full 'Possession' of ideas and poetry
"Possession" is a love story about ideas and a mystery about romance. Based on the prize-winning best-selling novel by A.S. Byatt, it contrasts the stories of two couples, a pair of Victorian poets and a pair of contemporary literary scholars trying to determine whether the poets were lovers -- and, if so, why nobody has known as much for a century.
It doesn't seem like an earth-shattering quest, but as the hip, cynical moderns dive more and more frantically into their search, we realize that their sophistication has so constipated them emotionally that they can express their inner depths only in the work.
The Victorians are played by Jeremy Northam, he of the smoldering good looks, catlike energy and enigmatic hauteur, and Jennifer Ehle, who has inherited the appeal, vivacity and intelligence of her mother, Rosemary Harris, with whom she co-starred in "Sunshine." The contemporaries are Aaron Eckhart, the charmer best known as the biker boyfriend of "Erin Brockovich," and Gwyneth Paltrow, convincingly playing a Brit for, by my count, the fifth time.
The couples each have obstacles impeding any possible romance. Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, the poets, are each attached, he to a wife that history has always said he adored, she to a woman, a Pre-Raphaelite painter whose works have never been discovered. In the modern story, Roland Michell and Maud Bailey must contend with her relationship to his career rival (a sniveling, posh Toby Stephens) and the ocean of manners that separates his bumptious Americanism and her icy British mien.
"Possession" is directed by Neil LaBute, who broke into movies with a pair of scabrous depictions of the battle of the sexes ("In the Company of Men," "Your Friends and Neighbors") and then veered into the strangely comic and uplifting "Nurse Betty." Here he aspires to a more sumptuous texture than ever, and the thing slips away from him a bit too often. There are clever transitions between the two centuries, but there are also ungainly and clumsy scenes between both sets of lovers.
The highlights are the writing and the performances. There are real laughs to be had -- several scenes end on sharp, witty shards of dialogue. And whenever Eckhart, Northam or Ehle is the focus, the thing soars. It's impossible to believe Eckhart, with his quarterback looks, boyish bounce and aura of wounded passion, isn't a bigger star. Ditto Northam, who adds to the bracing range of roles he has embodied in the likes of "Enigma," "Gosford Park," "The Golden Bowl" and "The Winslow Boy." Ehle, a renowned stage actress, is fascinating to watch -- confident, sexy, smart and bold. Only Paltrow, a terrific light-comic actress, seems out of sorts: The straight-faced declarations of the script sound inauthentic coming from her, not because she can't handle the accent but because she lacks the emotive daring of her co-stars.
"Possession" requires that you can follow a mystery, listen to some poetry, make associations in your head and accept the fact that there are smart people in the world who have feelings for one another.
So, no, it's not the sort of thing you expect to see at the movies in August. But if you can stand something substantial after filling up on junk food for the past few months, it might enchant you.
"Possession may be LaBute's attempt to do something new, but it's our opportunity to enjoy something tried and true."
-- Terry Lawson, DETROIT FREE PRESS
New Times L.A.
LaBute deprives viewers the passion of Byatt's books.
BY ANDY KLEIN
Director Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty) seems the unlikeliest candidate to direct the film version of British author A.S. Byatt's Booker Award-winning bestseller Possession. (Okay, that's an exaggeration: There's always Michael Bay.) LaBute's earlier films were resolutely tied to American culture, and Byatt's book couldn't be more British if it drank tea at four and flew the Union Jack.
One of the movie's departures is to change the lead male character, Roland Michell, from a Brit to an American, perhaps to draw in domestic audiences (a lame reason), perhaps to accommodate the casting of LaBute favorite Aaron Eckhart (not much better). Roland, a scruffy researcher, works for Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey), an expert in the life of fictional 19th-century romantic Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), a former Poet Laureate famed for his expressions of devotion to his wife. One day in the London Library, examining Ash's own copy of a book, Roland discovers what appears to be a love letter from Ash to a woman not his wife. It doesn't take a genius to recognize this as a potentially earthshaking find, the sort that can set an academic up for life.
When his boss is too dismissive to even listen to Roland's tale, the young man takes it upon himself to follow up. On a lead from his caddish associate Fergus Wolff (Toby Stephens), he contacts Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), an expert in the life of Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a less renowned poet, who is Roland's best candidate for the mystery lover.
At first, it all seems rather unlikely to Maud, given that Christabel, who just happens to be her great-great-great aunt, had only one known romance, and that was with another woman. Nor is the somewhat formal, frosty Maud exactly wild about the intrusion of this presumptuous American. But soon the pair uncover yet more lost documents that lend credence to Roland's idea. They begin to visit the locales of this 140-year-old love affair.
Of course, it doesn't take a genius to predict that Roland and Maud are going to end up falling under the spell of Ash and LaMotte's epic passion and, in some seemingly less-grand modern way, relive it.
An American like LaBute taking on such a project may seem no stranger than, say, Taiwanese Ang Lee directing Sense and Sensibility. But with imagination one can understand why Lee ended up making the best Jane Austen film adaptation of the '90s: His upbringing in a highly ritualized, stratified society, which had provided the thematic roots of his earlier films, gave him a better feel for Austen's period than any British director of his age, raised in a vastly different, modern culture, could have had.
Sadly, LaBute doesn't bring any equivalent advantage to Possession. In fact, his temperament seems largely inappropriate: The book is a romance, a story of grand passion, and LaBute is, to put it mildly, not the warmest of directors.
Nor does he entirely solve the many narrative problems the book presents for a film adaptation. In the book, the 19th-century story unfolds through documents -- letters, poems and diaries -- found by the two contemporary characters. Not surprisingly, these episodes are presented onscreen, intercut with the modern story, so we get the two love stories presented visually in counterpoint. Even so, the olden events lean heavily on voiceover readings of the texts: We are generally not so much in the scene as at a distance, watching it.
The story may be a direct descendent of Henry James's The Aspern Papers and its 1947 Hollywood film version, The Lost Moment, but the film that is likelier to come to mind is Karel Reisz's 1981 version of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, which likewise intercuts past and present. Curiously, the intercutting in that film developed in reverse, adding modern scenes to Fowles's period piece in an attempt to recreate the book's ironic voice. It may sound more unnatural than what LaBute does, but it ends up being more effective.
Likewise, the thoughts and inner lives of the modern protagonists go almost altogether untranslated to the screen. Roland and Maud keep making elliptical references to their pasts that are never fleshed out or made clear.
The cold distance that LaBute brings to the material keeps the viewer at arms' length. The story contains a series of plot revelations, each of which should move us, some of them profoundly; yet they feel so evenly weighted, so much like similar puzzle pieces dropping into place at regular intervals, that they have no impact.
All that is left of the emotional content are a few scenes of romantic/sexual passion, only one of which could be said to achieve anything close to a grand level. It's too little, too late; and one can only wonder what someone like, say, Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply, The English Patient) could have done with the project.
newtimesla.com | originally published: August 15, 2002
This article was originally posted on 18-Aug-2002
by Jeremiah Kipp, Staff Theater and Film Critic
Past and present are bound together through letters in Possession, a Miramax-style adaptation (distributed by the newly-minted Focus Features) of A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel. That means long scenes play out with academic scholars Aaron Eckhart (playing the rough and tumble American) and Gwyneth Paltrow (as the aloof Brit) digging up the "forbidden passion" correspondences between a Victorian poet (Jeremy Northam, coasting on a period film vibe he's attuned to by now) and his wily mistress (Jennifer Ehle).
That means long scenes where Eckhart and Paltrow sit around in attics, museums, castle walls, and hotel rooms reading about love, analyzing it, and dancing around their growing attraction towards each other. Some might find it romantic, since their doe-eyed glances at one another are intercut with Hallmark moments in which Northam and Ehle walk through windswept fields or overdecorated libraries. But all I could see throughout Possession were pages and pages from a screenplay filled with actor's exercise-style dialogue. As directed by Neil LaBute, there's no visual enchantment to accompany the heightened prose--and while Byatt's novel may have provided literary thrills through her use of words, when spoken by self-conscious (and model perfect) actors it's mannered period film hokum. Miramax has been churning out this sort of fluff since James Ivory lost his edge with Jefferson in Paris, and obviously Focus learned nothing from Robert Altman's Gosford Park (distributed by their former company, USA Films).
LaBute hasn't found interesting ways of photographing the understated bodice ripping. At best, he occasionally spins the camera around in a semi-circle, which some critics have hailed as cinematic after the locked down, under the microscope torture-drone of In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. The only moot enjoyment in Possession falls on the shoulders of actors, and this group is a mixed bag. Eckhart has a handsome, roguish appeal, but plays more puppy dog charming than intellectual. Ehle has a magnetic presence but little to do other than appear wan, faring slightly better than the sleepy Northam (who would do well to return to the stage, at this point). On the other hand, Paltrow's shrew is so overbearingly broad, punctuating every line with a cold smirk, that one longs for her quiet, introverted work in The Royal Tenenbaums or her perceptive body language in Shallow Hal.
Lamentably one of the most forgettable movies of the year, it's most fascinating to see LaBute himself losing interest in his own story. In the race against time for our present day romantic duo to find Northam's final letter to Ehle, they're up against some scheming bad guy professors who want the goods for themselves. In effect, Possession ends with a grave robbery and a well timed punch in the mouth for the main villain; a cynical denouement for a story supposedly about love. It took me out of the movie, easy to do considering how little happens, and made me wonder if it might have been more worthwhile and revealing to shoot the bidding war for the rights to the novel. The producers no doubt muscled over the competition as surely as brash American Aaron Eckhart does here. And they claim it's in the name of literary love. Not so. The only thing you smell here is the love of money.
movie review by Ben Kenigsberg, East Hampton Independent
Rating: ROTTEN [i.e., on balance a negative review]
Watching Possession is a bit like watching two people do research, except that you never learn anything yourself.
Review of Possession
by Ben Kenigsberg
Possession stars Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow as Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, two academics who stumble upon a collection of love letters suggesting that a famously faithful nineteenth-century poet, the fictional Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), may have had a secret lover, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Eventually, Ash's passion transcends time, and Maud and Roland fall in love with each other.
Fair enough, but why do they find Ash's letters so powerful? The chief problem with Possession is that we only hear snippets of Ash's poetry, and as a result, we never learn why the discovery of his adultery inspires such passion in the two scholars. Watching Possession is a bit like watching two people do research, except that you never learn anything yourself.
The movie is neatly patterned; we're shown the ways in which Paltrow and Eckhart's affair parallels Randolph and Christabel's. We learn, for instance, that the two couples stayed in the same room of the same hotel. But the movie never offers anything other than quaint parallelism. I haven't read the Booker Prize-winning novel by A.S. Byatt on which the film is based, but after seeing the film, I wasn't surprised to learn that Byatt's book includes reams of Ash's poetry. Possession is about language, and director Neil LaBute fails to find that language's visual equivalent.
Although he's never made a period piece before, LaBute is not as unfitting a choice for the material as some of his detractors have suggested. His first film, the indie classic In the Company of Men, was about the way the men talk to each other. The movie's main strength -- and it had many -- was LaBute's acerbic, witty screenplay. But the stilted dialogue in the Possession screenplay -- the adaptation was written by LaBute, David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones -- isn't improved by LaBute's lethargic direction.
Eckhart, who gave an unforgettable performance in In the Company of Men, is far too earnest as Roland, who is supposed to be brash and self-serving. (And strangely, his beard seems stunted at half-length; he never shaves, but it never grows.) As in Emma and Sliding Doors, Paltrow's British accent is convincing, but she isn't: at one point, we're told that Maud is icy, but Paltrow is merely blank.
That goes for the movie as a whole. As in his last film, Nurse Betty (2000), LaBute has no idea of what genre he's working in. The category Possession most closely fits into is the derogatorily named "women's picture," but the subject matter is too abstruse for Lifetime. But it's not a full-bodied movie either. It's a footnote.
And so it comes time for me to reveal that I don't hate all chick flicks. I just hate the dumb ones, which unfortunately fill 99 percent of the ecological niche for chick flicks. If it seems sometimes that I despise all movies in which smooches are major plot points, it's only because I forget how romantic a movie can be when it's done right. I truly do want to be swept away by a cute, angst-ridden guy and a pretty, wounded girl and the tenuous connection between them and the fate that keeps them apart until you can't stand the suspense anymore... it's just that I'm usually rolling my eyes and groaning when a movie tries to do that.
So I'm really delighted and surprised to say that not only did I not roll my eyes once during Possession, I found it utterly compelling and devastatingly romantic and I didn't ever want it to end.
Also, I mustn't forget to mention that Aaron Eckhart and Jeremy Northam are simply to die for. That's right: Not one, but two delicious guys who are terribly passionate and are fascinated by things like poetry and aren't gay.
It's a fantasy, okay?
Not that this is a bad thing, but Neil LaBute musta got conked on the head or something, because Possession has about as much in common with his other films -- like Nurse Betty and In the Company of Men -- as Martha Stewart Living has with Popular Mechanics: Possession is as far along one end of the romantic-fantasy spectrum (the soft, mushy end) as his previous work is along the other (the hard, cynical end). Based on A.S. Byatt's novel and lovingly adapted by LaBute, David Henry Hwang, and Laura Jones (Angela's Ashes, Oscar and Lucinda), Possession tells two parallel love stories, one contemporary and one historical, both swooningly ardent and meant to be quaffed like a rich, heady red wine.
The modern story, oddly enough, is the one that could be called The Adventures of Byronic Man and Jane Austen Powers. Roland Michell (Eckhart: The Pledge, Erin Brockovich), an American in England on a fellowship at the British Museum, teams up with Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow: Shallow Hal, The Royal Tenenbaums) to solve a newly discovered mystery in the world of Victorian poetry, the study of which consumes both of them. Roland is one of those crunchy- on- the- outside, gooey- on- the- inside guys who exist only in movies, one of those guys who thinks he's tough and hardened against tenderness and attachment but really just needs a strong enough gal to punch through his hastily erected defenses against having his tender heart broken again. Plus, could he have a more poetic name? Maud has a reputation as a ball-buster, of course, but is it her problem if men are both threatened by and drawn to an opinionated woman who speaks her mind and yet is as charmingly fragile looking as Gwyneth Paltrow? She's a wounded baby bird but she's also strong and she needs a man who appreciates that and treats her like an equal. It's sorta like Paltrow's other venture into English-accent territory, Emma, with that same tasty love- ya, hate- ya, can't- live- without- ya byplay that Emma and Mr. Knightley had.
(It can't be a coincidence that both Paltrow and her Mr. Knightley, Jeremy Northam, are both in this movie. Can it?)
Meanwhile, in the 19th-century, famous poets Randolph Henry Ash (Northam: Gosford Park, Happy, Texas) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle: Sunshine, Wilde) are putting off hopping in the sack for as long as you can take it, mostly by writing letters to each other, which is about as impossibly romantic as a couple can ever hope to be, delaying the consummation of fervently held desires till the frustration threatens to drive you (and them) mad. If anticipation is the fuel for the fires of passion, then Possession burns brightly, yessiree.
There are other kinds of romance at play here, too, like that of old books and cobblestoned English streets and of obsession with work that you love. Imagine having all that and crunchy/gooey Aaron Eckhart too -- sheer bliss.
Complete and utter balderdash, of course. But two hours of pretending ain't half bad.
Aug. 16, 2002
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered
By Peter Howell
*** [3 out of 4 stars]
Neil LaBute must envy Steven Soderbergh. He has watched as his contemporary made the switch from edgy filmmaker to mainstream director, winning an Oscar and box-office success for his troubles.
Soderbergh's rise to the Hollywood heights included the casting, for Erin Brockovich, of LaBute's discovery Aaron Eckhart. That one picture grossed more than four times the total take of LaBute's first three movies In The Company Of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors and Nurse Betty, risk-taking social commentaries which all featured the caustic Eckhart.
The above may explain LaBute's sudden shift towards the middle with Possession, a languid literary mystery that sands off his rough edges and makes him more palatable to the date-movie crowd. He wants a big audience now more than he wants critical kudos.
He's working once again with Eckhart, who has been considerably toned down. LaBute has also secured the services of Gwyneth Paltrow, who is about as Hollywood as it gets. There's further popular appeal in the casting of Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle (a ringer for Meryl Streep), who play the love-torn Victorian poets who are the subject of a hunt by the contemporary book sleuths played by Paltrow and Eckhart.
This isn't to say that there's anything terribly wrong with Possession. Indeed, the beautifully filmed movie holds our interest despite the dramatic limitations of its parallel stories, shifting across a century from the sexual heat of Northam and Ehle to the stop-and-start affair of Paltrow and Eckhart. It may be faint praise, but praise nonetheless, to say that LaBute (and co-writers Laura Jones and David Henry Hwang) have done the best they can with A.S. Byatt's Booker-winning 1990 novel, which has long been considered unfilmmable.
They strip the novel of its artier pretensions, zeroing in on the romantic detective story within. Eckhart's character has been changed from Briton to Yank, a wise move, although Paltrow is allowed yet again to demonstrate her skill with a British accent.
Eckhart is Roland Michell, a rough-hewn American scholar who works at the British Museum in London. While perusing a volume by Randolph Henry Ash (Northam), the (fictional) poet laureate to Queen Victoria, he discovers a hitherto-unknown love letter from Ash to another poet, Christabel LaMotte (Ehle). Sensing he's onto something big -- Ash was famous for being faithful to his wife -- Michell steals the letter.
But he needs the assistance of a LaMotte scholar to confirm his suspicions. He finds one in Maud Bailey (Paltrow), an officious feminist who is writing a biography of LaMotte, and who also happens to be a distant relation of the little-known poet.
Bailey dislikes Michell from first glance -- he's too grubby, and too American -- and she is reluctant to help him pursue a course of research that could rewrite a century's worth of literary studies. But as the evidence mounts, she too becomes thrilled by the hunt. And like her famous relation LaMotte, she finds herself drawn to a man who is probably wrong for her.
Possession plays like two movies in one, with Northam and Ehle showing the illicit affair and its dramatic outcome, while Paltrow and Eckhart retrace their steps, both physically and emotionally. It's a difficult device that LaBute handles well, but the considerably better chemistry between Northam and Ehle serves only to demonstrate the cooler connection between Eckhart and Paltrow: He seems uncomfortable as the mixed-up lover; she seems typecast as the ice queen.
In making Eckhart and himself more accessible to the masses, LaBute serves the box office more than the arthouse snobs who discovered them both, back in '97 with the ruthless satire of In The Company Of Men. It seems a long way from then to now, but everybody has to grow up sometime, as Steven Soderbergh would be the first to admit.
Aug. 15, 2002, 5:16PM
'Possession' fails to generate passion
By ERIC HARRISON
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
Possession, A.S. Byatt's prize-winning novel, is about passion -- a secret love affair between two celebrated Victorian-era poets, the passion that drives two present-day academics to great lengths to uncover this relationship and, finally, the love that blossoms between the mismatched researchers.
Neil LaBute's adaptation of the novel fails because the passion it renders never seems more than academic. Split between two periods -- modern-day England and the England of a century ago -- the movie has little time to breathe emotional life into either world.
LaBute, a playwright who broke into film with the mordant and provocative In the Company of Men, has worked with two other screenwriters to alter the novel significantly. For one thing, he's turned a lead character, researcher Roland Michell, into an impetuous American instead of the working-class Brit of the novel.
Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) and Maud Bailey (Gwyenth Paltrow) find love as they uncover secrets from the past. Michell (Aaron Eckhart) has given up on romantic love, the result of some secret in his past. His work is his passion. After he discovers century-old letters written by Victorian poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash stuck inside the pages of a book, Michell will stop at nothing to prove that the recipient was meant to be feminist writer Christabel LaMotte.
He enlists the aid of Maud Bailey -- "Doctor Bailey," she instructs him -- an icy expert on and descendent of LaMotte, who is at first reluctant. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Bailey, using a British accent that is starting to sound as natural coming from her lips as her own California cadence.
She, too, is afraid of becoming involved, yet is drawn to Michell over the course of their investigations.
Rivals catch wind of their research and race to beat them, dollar signs in their eyes. This should provide a spark of drama, yet the present-day story jousts with the movie's Victorian-era flashbacks, neither quite engaging us until late in the movie.
A sign of LaBute's failure is that the story of Ash and LaMotte's supposedly tempestuous love affair, told in flashback, is more compelling than the present-day tale -- and it's tepidly told.
More than halfway through the movie, after Michell and Bailey have discovered more letters, they encounter a gap of a year. What happened to Ash and LaMotte during that period?
"I need to know," Michell says, insisting they press on.
That's how any decent story works. It compels us to turn the page. By this point, the audience wants to know, too, but not nearly so fervently.
The present-day characters are awash in history. Michell, Bailey and their colleagues -- and, to an extent, everyone they encounter -- live in a world in which the past is as alive as the present.
The film works as well as it does because of the Academy Award-winning production and costume designers, Luciana Arrighi and Jenny Beavan, and cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier. The past doesn't look set in amber. It is as concrete and real as the present.
Using clues they find in Ash and LaMotte's poetry, the literary sleuths try to retrace the duo's steps. LaBute delights in having elements of the past and present worlds inhabit the same frame, or in moving the camera from a contemporary character or setting and showing someone from the past right there.
It works as a novelty. Nothing more. After the second time, it grows tiresome.
Possession seems to be an odd choice for LaBute, whose plays and early movies were scabrous investigations of sexual politics. In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors both were very theatrical productions with limited sets, little action and stylized dialogue that owed much to David Mamet. He branched out with Nurse Betty, his first movie that he didn't write.
Possession, too, deals with sexual politics, so it isn't quite as far afield as it appears. And LaBute, who studied at the Royal Court Theatre in London on a fellowship, has a longstanding interest in England.
He continues to show signs of growth as a director, and his desire to try new things is admirable, but he does not yet have the facility to manage such a complex story.