review by Paula Nechak, 16 August 2002

It irks me that Neil LaBute, in a recent issue of Premiere Magazine, said he needed to change the root of Roland Michell, a protagonist of his latest film, Possession, from Brit to Yank. "The American vs. English approach provided more chance for conflict than if they were both chilly English academics," he says.

Well. How insulting and ethnocentric can you get? Insulting in that for any American box office to come the film’s way we needed to have a Yank to identify with?; or perhaps an insult to the audience in that we can’t suspend our disbelief for a purely British couple instead of a mixed pair; or insulting to the English in that they’re chronically perceived as chilly. How about insulting to A.S. Byatt, the book’s author, in that her best-selling Booker Prize-winning novel had to be adjusted for the screen in the first place?

Maybe the real issue is Neil LaBute is the wrong guy to direct the film. LaBute, the Mormon-affiliate who has exercised distaste for certain factions of contemporary society in theatre-of-cruelty plays like The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors -- thawing a tad in the violently-disposed, loopy comedy Nurse Betty -- waves a chilly wand over Byatt’s intricate and romantic novel about contemporary scholars Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), who unravel a mystery concerning the Victorian Poet Laureate, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), who is currently being celebrated throughout London at a centenary celebration.

Ash is universally believed to have been a devoted husband and that his body of work was written for his wife. But a letter unearthed in the London Library leads Michell, an Ash devotee in England on a fellowship at the British Museum, to ponder whether there was another woman in his life. He delves into Ash’s whereabouts in the year 1859 and learns the great poet attended a party given in honor of a more minor one, the fiesty Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), whose lover and companion was a woman painter (Lena Headey). Michell deploys LaMotte expert, the imperious and frosty professor Maud Bailey to abet his secret mission and the rest, as they say, repeats history.

LaBute interweaves the parallel stories with visual panache and indeed, the visual production is the least of his worries. It’s executed with quintessential period perfection by the great Luciana Arrighi, and juxtaposes the dual narratives by clever segues and deft threadings.

Too, the actors are just fine. Paltrow executes her British accent with grace and elegance and Eckerd carries a likeable earnestness that should ignite more than it does. Northam is typically aloof and dignified and the always exceptional Jennifer Ehle warms the proceedings with a glimpse at what the film might have been.

Indeed what’s lacking with Possession is not the actors or the look of the film but its guts and passion. For a film that boasts heroines with the names "Maud" and "Christabel," filched from the great epic poems by Tennyson and Coleridge, only embers simmer where there should be infernos. "I cannot let you burn me up and I cannot resist you," writes LaMotte to her secret lover, "No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed," she finishes.

It’s all ultimately grand posturing about all-consuming lust and fated inevitability because Neil LaBute’s Possession is strangely contained and extraordinarily chaste. Its tell-us-not-show-us execution cripples it; for example Paltrow continually tells Eckhart that she’s icy and aloof and yet nothing she actually does supports the statement. Eckhart keeps insisting he’s fasting when it comes to women and yet he eagerly (and surprisingly, since the chemistry between the two stars is meagre) wants a relationship with his imperious co-conspirator.

The groundwork is all there, certainly. Byatt’s story is a good one, a fascinating one in fact, and yet Possession has so little sweeping urgency, momentum or sustenance to carry us along on its purported dam-break of obsession at all costs that, considering how hard the actors labor to fan a dying fire, it's a darn shame. One that, I repeat, a different director might have had the wherewithal to notice had he the propensity for passion.

Directed by:
Neil LaBute

Gwyneth Paltrow
Aaron Eckhart
Jeremy Northam
Jennifer Ehle
Lena Headey

Written by:
David Henry Hwang
Laura Jones
Neil LaBute

PG-13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate 
for children under 13






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