In earlier films that he both wrote and directed (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) and in plays he has written (Bash, The Shape of Things) Neil LaBute has demonstrated a talent for the theatrical and a dark vision of the world that tends to both condemn and, at the same time, revel in people’s weaknesses. His new film, Possession is a departure, based not on his own screenplay, but on a screenplay by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), in turn based on the Booker Prize winning novel by A.S. Byatt. In a way it’s a relief to see LaBute get past his evident misanthropy and into a Merchant-Ivory world of wit and romance; unfortunately the end product is dramatically unbalanced.
A young scholar, Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), accidentally discovers a letter tucked away in a book at the library. It is from a renowned nineteenth century poet, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) to his extramarital lover, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Michell, suspecting he is on to an important discovery, blithely steals the letter and then contacts a professor whose specialty is LaMotte, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). Together they begin an investigation into the relationship between these two nineteenth century poets, played out a bit like a mystery story, while flashbacks recreate the events that they are uncovering.
Ash and LaMotte’s story is an intriguing one because it upsets the previously held images of these (fictional) historical characters. Ash, poet laureate to Queen Victoria, was seen as a paragon of monogamous virtue; he celebrated his relationship with his wife in his poems. LaMotte, a hero to feminists, was an independent type who lived in a long-term lesbian relationship. Documentation of an affair between Ash and LaMotte would be an academic career-making breakthrough, shaking up the world of scholarly English literature and necessitating a revaluation and revision of earlier thinking about the work of both poets.
In the midst of all the detective work, Michell and Bailey, become emotionally involved with each other; their romance plays in parallel time (but not in nature) to that of the nineteenth century poets. Labute smoothly and creatively handles the transitions back and forth between periods. Tacked on, quite gratuitously in the film version at least, is a subplot of competing scholars following at Michell and Bailey’s heels. The characters involved in the latterare never developed; they are stick figures whose behaviors (including grave robbing) stretch the credulity of the narrative.
It is the two love storieswhich are the substance of the film. The poets’ relationship is cast in idealistic, hyper-romantic terms–poetry flowing, glances from a distance, a social and verbal foreplay of charm and intensity. That both parties are betraying their truly beloved partners adds to the exquisite construct of their romance. Love comes always accompanied by sacrifice and pain, but the fleeting shared moments are never regretted, whatever the fallout. Ehle (Bedrooms and Hallways, Sunshine) is engaging as LaMotte, projecting both intelligence and alluring sexiness, making Ash’s passion for her seem fully understandable. (Her resemblance to her radiant mother, actress Rosemary Harris, is palpable.) And Northam (An Ideal Husband, Gosford Park, The Winslow Boy), too, is an actor who says as much with his eyes and facial expressions as he does with his elegantly delivered lines. Their’s is a hothouse romance, stylized in Victorian convention, in keeping with the literary source, and abetted by the considerable screen chemistry between two accomplished actors.
In direct contrast, as portrayed here the romance between the twentieth century academics seems rather pathetically contemporary, both of them holding back defensively in fear of commitment and in view of the hurts and disappointments they have experienced in past love affairs. Both, as well, seem more native to LaBute’s customary world of the self-protective and self-centered. Courtship skills are notable by their absence. It’s easy to accept the difficulty in their groping steps towards one another since there isn’t a hint of chemistry between the two actors; they seem to be inhabiting separate emotional planets. Paltrow (The Royal Tenenbaums, Shakespeare in Love) remains a winning screen presence, but her gravitas as a scholar and a feminist isn’t powerful enough and then melts too quickly after Eckhart appears.
It’s Eckhart (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty) who fatally weakens their part of the film (which gets substantially more time than the Victorians). He doesn’t project any of the characteristics which might have helped him embody a serious scholar of English literature, on the one hand, and an emotionally bruised and psychologically numbed adult on the other. With his perennial two day growth of beard (surely that fashion-victim look is long out of style by now?) and scruffy clothes, he looks more the Big Ten undergraduate. His lines, as delivered, come from a script, not from an internalized character. As one of Labute’s favored actors, they both must shoulder responsibility for this clueless performance which, in large measure, undermines the film.