Possession


          Okay, from the name you'd might think that this was another cheesy
  horror flick, but there you'd be wrong. This is a superb adaptation of A.S.
  Byatt's 1990 novel about literary scholars who team up when one discovers
  some heretofore unknown papers that indicate a link between two Victorian
  writers. The film is directed by Neil LaBute who also wrote the screenplay
  adaptation along with playwright David Henry Hwang (
M. Butterfly) and
  screenwriter Laura Jones (
The Portrait of the Lady). Now I've admired
  LaBute's handiwork in the past, and feel with each successive film he
  has grown and developed as a filmmaker.
Possession is a giant leap forward
  for him. He skillfully handles the parallel stories as they unfold in the present
  and in the late 19th, early 20th Centuries. There are subtle shifts in the
  film, such as the time period has been moved to 2001 and one of the present
  day scholars has been turned into an American graduate student so
  Aaron Eckhart could play the role.

          Some of the supporting characters are drawn in broader strokes, but
  in attempting to capture a book that runs over 500 pages in paperback in
  a two-hour time span requires this. What LaBute has done -- and done well --
  is capture the spirit of Byatt's writing, a rare feat in literary film adaptations.
  In present day, American Roland Mitchell (Eckhart) has traveled to London
  to study the writings of Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), poet laureate
  to Queen Victoria, who is presently undergoing a renaissance in interest
  thanks to the centennial of a volume of poems dedicated to his wife.
  Mitchell discovers a draft of a letter tucked away in a volume of Ash's that
  indicates he had an interest in another woman, though. And Mitchell's
  research and instincts make him believe that the woman was poet Christabel
  LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). He seeks out the foremost expert on LaMotte,
  English academic Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), who at first scoffs at
  Mitchell's scholarship. LaMotte, you see, was a "modern" woman who
  pursued a relationship with a painter named Blanche Glover (Lena Headey).
  Yet, Maud and Roland pursue a lead that results in the discovery of a hidden
  cache of papers that could upend the current academic views.

          As Maud and Roland travel throughout England and France tracking down
  leads, they are curiously drawn to one another. He's brash and headstrong,
  she's reserved and uptight. In striking contrast, the relationship between
  Ash and LaMotte is played out, sometimes at the very same locations and
  here LaBute does some masterful directing, seamlessly intercutting between
  time periods. Eckhart has appeared in all of LaBute's films and he gives a
  wonderful performance. Paltrow resorts to her now-infamous "Brit" accent,
  yet she manages to find the humanity in her buttoned-up character. (It
  helps that there are self-reflexive comments in the script that call attention
  to these character traits.) Northam cuts a dashing, Romantic hero, and
  Ehle (who resembles a young Meryl Streep) is wonderful, capturing the
  conflicting emotions of a progressive woman.

           LaBute has amassed a cadre of talented behind-the-scenes
  supporters as well, including lush costumes by Oscar-winner Jenny Beavan,
  the appropriate production design of Oscar-winner Lucianna Arigghi and
  the deft editing of Oscar-winner Claire Simpson. Although director of
  photography Jacques-Yves Escoffier has yet to take home a statue, if
  he continues to produce work of the quality here, he will undoubtedly join
  that elite group.

          I have to add a personal note: the novel
Possession is one of my
  all-time favorites, partly because in another career, I worked as a manuscript
  archivist. In Byatt's book, there is much attention devoted to an American
  collector who attempts to buy British manuscripts for the US college that
  employs him. While the character appears briefly in the film, his subplot isn't
  germane to the main story. Still, having worked in the field, I can say that
  Byatt beautifully captured the thrill of finding a previously unknown connection
  between two authors, the academic in fighting, etc. I was very wary about
  a film adaptation, but as I stated, LaBute and company have managed
  to capture the heart of the story.


                                  Rating:               A-
                                  MPAA rating:        PG-13 for sexuality and some
                                                                   thematic elements
                                  Running time:      102 mins.
© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.