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It sounds almost like a throwaway joke, or the premise of a bad Saturday Night Live sketch: Neil LaBute, the man who brought us the nasty and acerbic films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, as well as a handful of stage plays along the same lines, has directed a weepy romance. And a weepy historical romance at that, set in Victorian England, with mutton-chop sideburns and corsets and illicit, candlelit sex in four-poster beds in old inns by the seashore. And a sweeping old-fashioned score. And poetry. Lots and lots of poetry.
Based on A.S. Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel, Possession overlays that secretive Victorian romance with a modern equivalent: Two young academics specializing in 19th-century English verse try to track down the details of the relationship between two well-known poets, while falling hard for one another at the same time. That means that the historical part of the film makes up less than half the action, allowing LaBute, once again, to have his say about the wide shark pit that separates men and women in contemporary Western society. He gets to have his cake, in other words, and eat it, too—to try his hand at directing an ambitious costume drama while also filming present-day scenes in which Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart argue over gender politics just before she tears off his shirt.
Still, there’s a lot of poetry. Indeed, the picture opens with the fictional 19th-century poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam, the one with the mutton chops) walking wistfully across a sunlit field, poofy Victorian sleeves billowing in the breeze. In voice-over—and in great earnest—he reads a love poem (one of many written by Byatt for the novel). In the background, a plaintive oboe rises and falls. If this were what we think of as a typical Neil LaBute picture, this syrupy, pastoral opening would be nothing more than a setup. It would be a flashback or a fantasy, and it would lead abruptly to a raw sex scene or to a college professor reading the poem, lewdly, to one of his young female students.
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Instead the scene dissolves into a present-day auction in London, where the poem in question is being sold to the highest bidder and we learn that Ash was the poet laureate to Queen Victoria. Soon, LaBute introduces Roland Michell (Eckhart, a stalwart in the LaBute canon), an American graduate student (he was British in the book) on a fellowship to London to study Ash’s poetry at the fictional—and annoyingly alliterative—London Library. He’s tall and good-looking, with a stylish bed-head hairdo. He seems to wear the same wool sweater in every scene, and he manages always to be sporting a day-and-half’s worth—no more, no less—of stubble. As embodied by Eckhart, Michell is less believable as an enterprising graduate student than as a scruffy male model playing an enterprising graduate student in a GQ photo shoot on hipster academics.
Paltrow, on the other hand, is a touch more believable as Maud Bailey, an upper-crusty young professor of gender studies who is somewhat emotionally restricted. (You can tell by the way she pulls back her hair.) Roland meets her just as he’s stumbling into the middle of a possibly major discovery involving Ash’s relationship with the poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), thought by historians to have been a lesbian. A series of flashbacks tells the Victorian track of the story, while in the present, the increasingly smitten Maud and Roland begin to piece together the details of the Ash-LaMotte courtship, tailed all the way by Ash’s American biographer, Professor Cropper (Trevor Eve) and Maud’s sometime boyfriend, Fergus Wolff (Toby Stephens), who is not just evil but uptight. (You can tell by the way he always wears a turtleneck under his blazer.)
What keeps it all from getting either predictable or too sugary is that the romance in the past—the one in which the female poet leaves her lesbian lover to chase the male, married poet—is a good deal more adventurous and “modern” than the one in the present. Roland and Maud have read too much Freud and seen the wreckage of too many divorces; as a result, they conduct a courtship that is the amorous version of defensive driving, with one foot always hovering over the brake. At a pivotal moment, for example, Roland tells Maud, “I don’t really allow myself to do that whole Ash-Christabel grand-passion kind of thing.” A little later, Maud allows that whenever she begins to feel something for a guy, she “just gets cold all over.”
And that is, I gather, one of the central themes and central ironies of Byatt’s novel: She uses the Victorians to teach us members of the liberated present day a thing or two about sexual and romantic daring. And in the sense that LaBute has found material here that allows him to make his audience feel guilty and self-conscious, yet again, about their neurosis-filled relationships, then perhaps it’s not too surprising that he’s the one who wound up bringing this popular piece of literature to the screen.
But aside from some gorgeous shots of the young couple zooming through the English countryside in Maud’s Saab and some nicely composed views of the poets composing impressive letters in longhand and then, magisterially, sealing the envelopes with wax, that neat historical reversal is pretty much all you’re going to get for your ticket price. The script, the product of a seemingly unsuccessful tripartite commission composed of LaBute, Laura Jones, and the playwright David Henry Hwang, is not only hard to follow for those who haven’t read the book, but also full of groaners.
The first night Roland stays over at Maud’s, he lets her know he won’t be long in the bathroom by telling her that he’s just “a brush-and-flush kind of guy.” Later, apparently trying to come across as a bit more sensitive, he explains soggily to Maud that he wants “to see if there’s an us in you and me.” Later still, when our heroes get to open an important letter they’ve been chasing for much of the third act, they do so while sitting close to one another in front of a glowing fireplace, with Paltrow wearing a short skirt.
Worse yet, the relationship between Ash and LaMotte, for all their epistolary references to evanescence and burning (even his name, notice, is in that vein), never really catches fire, partly because Northam looks a little pasty and withdrawn but even more because the distant and affectless Ehle seems to spend the entire picture wrapped up in some kind of flame-retardant casing. Even when she cries, it’s as if we’re watching her weep through the wrong end of the binoculars. And given that her passion is supposed to provide most of the heat at the white-hot center of the story, that’s no small problem. CP