Director : Neil LaBute
Screenplay : David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones and Neil LaBute (based on the novel by A.S. Byatt)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Gwyneth Paltrow (Maud Bailey), Aaron Eckhart (Roland Michell), Jeremy Northam (Randolph Henry Ash), Jennifer Ehle (Christabel LaMotte), Lena Headey (Blanche Glover), Holly Aird (Ellen Ash), Toby Stephens (Fergus Wolfe), Trevor Eve (Cropper), Tom Hickey (Blackadder)
One could argue that there isn't enough poetry in the world anymore. In the hustle and bustle of the 21st century, the simple pleasures of written verse are becoming more and more archaic, as is the romanticism associated with it.
In that sense, Neil LaBute's Possession is something of a glorious throwback, a film in which poetry and romanticism are celebrated and cherished. It tells two stories, one of which unfolds in the 19th century as it is discovered a bit at a time by two people the 21st century. The two stories are intertwined thematically, as both involve unexpected romance, although they are different in their obstacles, which points up the differences between love affairs in 1859 and love affairs in 2000. If anything, despite the lack of corsets and heavy social taboos against unmarried couples sharing hotel rooms, the modern-day story is the more repressed of the two, as the lives of the people involved are so complicated and busy that romance becomes a liability to their pursuits of success.
Aaron Eckhart, who has starred in all three of LaBute's previous films (1997's In the Company of Men, 1998's Your Friends and Neighbors, and 2000's Nurse Betty), stars as Roland Michell, a scruffy American scholar working on fellowship in England as a research assistant. It's a lowly position with too much work and too little dignity, but he takes it seriously, hoping that it will eventually lead to a teaching position. One day, while looking through an old volume in the British Museum, he happens across an unfinished love letter written by the fictional poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), who was Queen Victoria's poet laureate. Ash has been celebrated for a century not only for his poetry, but also because he was a dedicated husband. The letter Roland discovers is not addressed to Ash's wife, and he develops a theory that it was written to another poet, a woman named Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle).
In his search to discover the details of this heretofore unrevealed romance, Roland teams up with Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), an icy research scholar who thinks she knows everything there is to know about LaMotte. However, it quickly turns out that Roland's theory about Ash and LaMotte is true, which turns Maud's entire understanding of history upside down. Both of them are fascinated by this empty space in the historical account that they are beginning to fill, but there are downfalls as well. Unearthing history often means uncovering ugly truths and lies--things that might be better left buried. Thus troubles Maud because she has spent her life holding LaMotte up as a beacon of female power and integrity. Much as Ash's celebrated marital fidelity is called into question, so is LaMotte's strength of character.
Thus, Possession is not just about romance and poetry, but also about the nature of history and how it is used in the present to structure our understanding of the past. We get the sense that Maud needs to hold onto her understanding of LaMotte's life because it gives her the strength to do what she does. As this begins to crumble around her, she finds herself running a potentially parallel course as her icy exterior melts and she allows herself to fall for Roland. Both she and Roland externally profess reservations about the reality of true romance--for her, it is a trap for strong women in which they must give up themselves for a storybook fantasy that never comes true, while for him it is something that has burned in the past, although we are never informed in what manner.
There is an interesting gender reversal in the film, in which Roland is ultimately the more sensitive and vulnerable of the two, while Maud is better able to maintain a strong front, even though we know she breaks down when alone. Eckhart, who was so seething as the misogynistic yuppie in In the Company of Men, conveys an inner yearning and vulnerability that is surprising given his square jaw and strong demeanor. Paltrow is good at conveying the barely repressed interior feelings that she masks with stoic professionalism and aloof sarcasm. It's an odd romance, but their chemistry feels right because it's not perfect--it feels genuine.
LaBute, working with cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier (Good Will Hunting), gives the film a warm, romantic glow that befits its focus on poetry and passion; the initial scenes in the modern day have harder edges, but seem to get softer as it goes along, matching the gauzy, candle-lit look of the Victorian-era sequences. In telling parallel stories, LaBute uses screen space in interesting ways to convey the connections between Roland and Maud and Ash and LaMotte. Rather than using cuts or dissolves, he often pans the camera away from one couple and finds the other couple, separated by 140 years, in the same space.
Part of the film's romanticism is that much of the action takes place in the same locations in both stories--by a waterfall, in a hotel room, along a stretch of countryside in Yorkshire--thus emphasizing the continuities of past and the present. There is a strange power in standing on a spot where you know something important once happened, as if a trace of it still remains in the earth, and you get the sense that Roland and Maud feel this and it becomes the seed from which their own romance blooms.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick