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Roland Michell is an American scholar trying to make it in the difficult world of British Academia. He has yet to break out from under his mentor's shadow until he finds a pair of love letters that once belonged to one of his idols, a famous Victorian poet. Michell, after some sleuthing, narrows down the suspects to a woman not his wife, another well known Victorian poet. Roland enlists the aid of a Dr. Maud Bailey, an expert on the life of the woman in question. Together they piece together the story of a forbidden love affair, and discover one of their own. They also find themselves in a battle to hold on to their discovery before it falls into the hands of their rival, Fergus Wolfe. Written by
The character names "Maud Bailey" and "Christabel LaMotte" refer to a special form of castle, the Motte-and-Bailey, widespread in the 11th/12th century. See more »
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They say that women change. 'Tis so, but you are ever-constant in your changefulness. Like that still thread of falling river, one from source to last embrace, in the still pool ever-renewed and ever-moving on, from first to last, a myriad water-drops.
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A rose by any other name is still a rose; and so it is with love. And whether or not history reflects any of the great love stories of the past accordingly and/or contextually correct, it does not alter the fact of it. The rose of the romance four generations later, for example, may become known as the lily; neither does that alter the fact of what was, nor of what is, all of these decades later, indelibly etched upon the mind's eye of eternity. `Possession,' directed by Neil LaBute, is just such a story, within a story; one the actual passion of which may have been inadvertently diminished, however, through the misinterpretation of the chroniclers who years before set it all down in annals made figuratively of stone, and which, once set, forever after endured. A romantic film of an even more romantic notion, it's a twofold tale of love, the stories of which, though separated by generations, are in the end, in nature one and the same. Because, as this film so richly reveals, love indeed lives eternal, and is borne on the very same flame throughout the ages.
Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), an American, is in London on a fellowship researching the life and work of 19th Century poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), poet laureate to Queen Victoria. History recognizes Ash as a dedicated and faithful husband, and his love poems-- purportedly written to or about his wife-- are considered to be among his most noteworthy accomplishments. In the course of his studies, however, Michell happens across some passionate letters written by Ash to a woman; a woman who is, without question, not his wife. And all evidence points to poetess Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) as being the receiver of the letters-- and of Ash's affections.
Galvanized by the thought that he may have discovered something that would change history, he seeks out Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), currently doing research of her own on LaMotte, in hopes that she will assist him in his quest to uncover the truth about Ash. Initially skeptical, Bailey acquiesces, and together they set out across England, following what appears to be the trail of Ash and LaMotte's movements during what Michell and Bailey calculate to have been the period of the romantic interlude between the poets. And what follows is a journey of discovery for Michell and Bailey; about the tenets of truth, history, and most importantly, about love.
LaBute, Laura Jones and David Henry Hwang wrote the screenplay for this film, adapted from the novel by A.S. Byatt. And for LaBute, known for such films as `Your Friends and Neighbors,' `Nurse Betty' and the scathing `In the Company of Men,' it's an artistic turn of 180 degrees. Absent are the misogynists and narcissists who typically populate his landscapes, replaced by characters the audience can warm to, if not embrace entirely. First and foremost, this is an enthralling love story, made all the more so by LaBute's sensitive and sensible presentation. Visually, it is stunning, as well; Jean-Yves Escoffier's masterful cinematography fully captures the exquisite beauty of the setting, which complements the romance and makes for an entirely transporting experience.
What makes this film altogether satisfying, however, is that LaBute (via Byatt) manages to transcend the dominant romantic aspects of it, interjecting a very subtle consideration of established social precepts and principles, as well. There is a decided sense of Ibsen about it, in attitude, outlook and especially in the suggestion of the `roles' men and women are assigned according to the dictates of `Society,' both then and now. And there is an obvious parallel drawn between the characters of LaMotte and Bailey. Generations later, Bailey has become the person LaMotte aspired to be, and would have been except for the constraints of the times, exemplified by the direction LaMotte's life necessarily had to take, as compared with the options Bailey would enjoy in the same situation today.
The casting of this film could not have been better, beginning with LaBute stalwart Eckhart, who perfectly realizes the character of Michell. Through his performance, he manages to carry the pivotal role of the film, without making his character the focus. Michell is central to the story, but it is not `about' him, though Eckhart does give him something of an enigmatic presence, revealing just enough about him to maintain interest, but no more. Eckhart directs attention to what Michell is doing, rather than who he is, which successfully effects the desired results, and makes the film work.
From the moment she appears on screen, Gwyneth Paltrow is a commanding presence. Her initial entrance is fairly inauspicious, and yet when she steps into the room the eye is automatically drawn to her; it's one of those cinematic ` moments' destined to remain suspended in time. She imbues Maud with a confident reserve which enables her to dominate the scenes she shares with Eckhart, pointing up not only her considerable ability as an actor, but Eckhart's generosity. Beyond all of which, Paltrow has eyes that draw you in like tractor beams.
The players who make this film so emotionally engaging, however, are Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam. With acting souls seemingly tempered for period piece drama, Ehle (`Pride and Prejudice') and Northam (`Wuthering Heights,' `Carrington') make the perfect LaMotte and Ash. In Ehle's Christabel, we discern a character of independence and strength, beneath which lies the romantic nature of the poet; in Northam's Ash we find gentleness and charm, a dreamer who seeks out and finds that which is beautiful and good about the world, the spirit of which he manifests in his work. Their respective performances are elegant, and there is a definite chemistry between them that renders the romance viable and convincing.
The supporting cast includes Trevor Eve (Cropper), Toby Stephens (Fergus), Tom Hickey (Blackadder) and Lena Headey (Christabel's friend). `Possession' is an excursion into new territory for LaBute, and the result is a memorable, transfixing experience for his audience. 10/10.
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