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
A large part of Church Street in Whitby was dressed to give it the appearance of a 18/19th century fishing town. Gwyneth Paltrow insisted that the whole place was screened off so that she was not visible to the small crowd of on-lookers. Jeremy Northam, however, took time to go and talk about the film to the bystanders. Miss Paltrow also turned down an offer from the local dignitaries to meet the mayor and be shown around the town. The Whitby Gazette carried a massive banner headline declaring "PALTROW SNUBS WHITBY". See more »
When Maude is in her car waiting for Roland to come out of the museum, her window is down. When he gets in the car and they begin talking, it is rolled up. See more »
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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There have been any number of films where time shifting back and forth is the plot device to tell a story. Mostly the results are mediocre or even abysmal ("Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure": it was nothing of the kind). One of my old and rarely seen favorites is "The Yellow Rolls-Royce."
More recently "The Red Violin", based on Ann Rice's novel, took viewers through several epochs as the impending auction of a magnificent violin loomed. That movie worked. And so does "Possession," also based on a novel and beautifully realized by Neil LaBute, a sensitive director with an outstanding leading cast.
Set in England with a side trip to France, "Possession" follows the path of laconic American scholar "Roland Mitchell" (Aaron Eckhardt) as he works for an eccentric Irish academic. Both specialize in nineteenth century British literature. Apparently Mitchell is still working on his Ph.D - his duties for his employer are largely of a research assistant nature.
At his master's command he goes to the British Museum to verify some data about the great poet, "Randolph Henry Ash" (come to life through Jeremy Northam). Like Professor Peter Schickele, whose fortuitous discoveries of the works of Bach's least known son, P.D.Q., Mitchell stumbles upon several handwritten pages that lead him to believe that a great mystery about the life of Ash might be solvable. Since Ash is being celebrated with exhibitions and academic convocations, this is, certainly, a good time for this Yank to delve into Ash's past.
With the pages in hand (felony larceny comes to mind as the proper acquisition designation) the adventure begins. And soon leads to "Dr. Maud Bailey" played by a luminous Gwyneth Paltrow (Ms. Paltrow is now living in London so her dialect preparation was practical as well as necessary for the film).
Bailey is a specialist on the life of poet "Christabel LaMotte" (Jennifer Ehle). She's reputed to be a tough and difficult person. Often in the academic world, that simply means the person in question is a competent woman. As Bailey and Mitchell deepen their investigation the inevitable but well-acted romantic attraction, rejection, and...well... (you can guess, can't you?) rolls to its certain ending.
The scenes shift seamlessly between the nineteenth century poets and the twenty-first century academic sleuths. Career opportunities, acclaim, lionization by a small coterie of academics in very narrow fields await those who first publish new discoveries. In a real world where many consider weaponizing pathogens to be the true meaningful work of the academy, it's nice to see that a love of literature and an insatiable desire to learn about those whose writings remain cherished can be the focus of a fine film.
Of course there are scurrilous academics afoot - an arrogant American and his toady English assistant - who are sniffing at the trail left by Mitchell and Bailey. The extremes they go to are silly, even funny but NOT implausible. What is very silly are the recurrent anti-American comments that go beyond humor and make me wonder what the script writer's experiences here have been.
Maud and Roland seem real, and so are Christabel and Henry, because their doubts and passions aren't of the exaggerated variety that Masterpiece Theater regularly plucks from English literature or that Merchant/Ivory immortalizes. Each couple in real life would understand the lives and fears of their opposite pairing.
I'm not quite sure why the song "Posseso" accompanies the end credits. In any event I don't understand Italian beyond menu and cookbook so I have little idea what it's about.
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