Director: Neil LaBute
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey, Holly Aird, Toby Stephens
MPAA Rating: (for sexuality and some thematic elements)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 8/16/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
Possession asks if intellectuals are ever romantic. The film is a romance to be sure, taking a story of repressed love between two poets of the past and making it the impetus for the blossoming romance between two academics in the present day. There’s poetry abounding, but even romantic poetry has the pretense of an attempt to rationalize the irrational. There are no huge, melodramatic gestures of love here—there’s no room for that among the literati. Most emotions are left unanswered by psychoanalysis of fears and past experiences or the desire to remain "proper" and, once the romance is consummated, guilt—but without regret of the affair itself—consumes the participants. While we’re used to love stories in which people are brought together, Possession is more about how these sets of lovers are kept apart. The ultimate fate of one romance is known from the start, but the real romance lies in wondering if the other pair will heed the mistakes of the past or suffer a worse fate in the pain of regretting what could have been.
Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American who has come to England to help with research involving poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), the poet laureate to Queen Victoria and the subject of a centenary celebration of his love poems. The fervor of Ash’s devotees is extraordinary, inducing one person to pay a ridiculous amount of money for a toothpick at an Ash themed auction. So it must be extremely difficult for Roland (and the audience) to believe that letters written in Ash’s own hand to an unknown woman were sitting, waiting to be discovered in one of Ash’s original manuscripts at a library in London. The letters could be enough evidence to change history, as most scholars believe that Ash wrote his poetry for and was faithful to one woman his entire life. Realizing the importance of the serendipitous find, Roland "borrows" the letters, keeps their existence secret, and starts investigating their meaning. His research eventually leads him to Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), an expert on poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), and the two find themselves irresistibly drawn to unraveling the mystery of this overlooked affair.
Although the catalyst for the entire story is a rather questionable one, the film proves itself worthy of suspending disbelief. The modern day scholars must find clues not only in correspondences between Ash and LaMotte but also in their poetry. Beyond their artistic value, there are some real-life applications of the metaphorical language of the lovers’ writings. They’re leads—evidence—and the mystery they’ll help solve is fascinating. A mysterious metaphor is actually a description of a cavernous waterfall, which helps Roland and Maud determine the location of the lovers when written evidence has them lost, and a poem about a doll hiding something takes a literal meaning at LaMotte’s ancient residence. As the scholars travel across Europe to uncover the past, flashbacks allow us to see the big picture. LaBute seamlessly incorporates transitions between the past and the present. As a scene between Ash and LaMotte concludes, oftentimes the camera slowly pans over to reveal Roland and Maud in the same room, reinforcing the connection between these couples.
What the two couples share most is the preference to talk instead of feel. There’s a strange irony to the scenario presented here. Ash is noted for having some of the most sentimentally romantic poetry (with some hints of misogyny, which don’t seem to go together, but that’s what the scholars say), and yet in real life, his character is barely on speaking terms with his wife Ellen (Holly Aird), not to mention the fact that they aren’t physical intimate in any respect. LaMotte’s poetry fits a bit more in rhythm with her character. Her naiveté is reflected in her fantasy writing, but her ideas regarding the treatment of women in literature and society (slightly hinted at in an early conversation between Ash and LaMotte) don’t hint at the possibility of her having an affair with Ash. What brings these two together? The question is impossible to answer and makes the poets’ relationship, along with the restrained performances of Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle, all the more alluring. It’s understandable why it would entice the pair of researchers in the present, and the underlying and irresistible chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is tangible from the start.
Possession is an intriguing look at a fairly atypical romance that avoids most of the preconceptions about what a love story should be like. At first, the quirks are difficult to grasp, but LaBute and his fellow screenwriters David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones (working from the novel by A.S. Byatt) manage to delve into this scholarly culture. The film is literate but never boring. And even though the poetry is not always too poetic (Ash somehow gets away with saying, "You take my breath away") and a competing academic seems a poor attempt to add conflict (he does get points for attempting to recite poetry before digging up a grave), there’s no denying the film’s intelligence and heady appeal.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.