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