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`Possession' has all the intricacy, mystery and suspense of a classic
of detective fiction. What sets this film apart, however, is that the
object of the mystery does not involve a dead body, a piece of stolen
treasure or a missing person, but rather the hitherto secret love affair
between two well-known 19th Century English poets. The clues come in the
form of journal entries, love letters and snippets of enigmatic poetry
when pieced together, afford a glimpse into the inner yearnings of these
young, but essentially unrequited lovers.
As a narrative, `Possession' runs on two parallel tracks, one set in modern times (that's where the detective story aspect comes in) and the other set in 1859, as we learn the details of the romance that took place between the writers. In the contemporary plot strand, Aaron Eckhart stars as Roland Michell, a handsome young American research assistant who has come to England to study the work of famed poet Randolph Henry Ash, a writer with a certain misogynistic strain who nevertheless enjoys the rather unique reputation among poets of having been utterly faithful to his wife. As the story begins, Ash has become something of a cause celebre within British literary circles because the year 2000 happens to mark the centenary of the discovery of his work. While poring over a first edition copy of one of Ash's volumes, Roland stumbles across some original letters of Ash's that hint at the possibility that Ash, contrary to the public impression of his marital fidelity, may actually have had an affair with another famed poet of the time, a Miss Christabel La Motte, a woman believed by her biographers to have been a lesbian. Confronted with this startling, revolutionary and, perhaps, priceless piece of information, Roland sets out to unravel the mystery, accompanied by Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), an expert on the life and work of Miss LaMotte (and a distant descendant of that famed poet in the bargain).
`Possession' earns points automatically simply by providing us with a unique storyline and a fascinating glimpse into a world we have rarely if ever seen portrayed on screen - the world of literary investigation. We are fascinated by all the behind-the-scene details showing not merely the investigative footwork that goes into unearthing the biographical details of a writer's life, but also the sometimes-cutthroat nature that propels rival investigators to both make and publish their discoveries, even if that means utilizing tactics that can be described as, at best, unethical, and, at worst, illegal.
But `Possession' offers more than just that. It also manages to provide not merely one, but two complex romances occurring at the same time (though a full century apart in the context of the story). Randolph and Christabel are both products - and victims - of their Victorian Era morality, yet at the same time, their struggles are universal in nature and neatly correspond to those experienced by Roland and Maud, who literally follow in the footsteps of the earlier couple. As our modern day investigators travel the same route through England that Randolph and Christabel took a century previous, Roland and Maud reveal much about their own inability to make commitments in the face of possible true love. As they tentatively grope towards one another, then back away out of fear of pain and rejection, Roland and Maud define, in many ways, the métier of modern romantic coupling. Yet, we discover, through Randolph and Christabel, that life in the past really wasn't much different from what it is today.
Based on the novel by A.S. Byatt, the David Henry Hwang/Laura Jones/Neil LaBute screenplay provides highly charged scenes between our two romantic couples, particular those involving Roland and Maud. The dialogue in these encounters is often sharp, intelligent, incisive. The romantic moments between Raymond and Christabel have a slightly more conventional feel to them, but they, too, often ring true in a way that is both deeply moving and strangely exciting. Director LaBute has drawn wonderful performances out of his quartet of first-rate actors. Aaron Eckhart as Roland and Jennifer Ehle as Christabel are particularly effective in their roles.
It's refreshing to see a romantic drama that manages to generate some actual chemistry between its two on-screen lovers. In the case of `Possession,' our pleasure is thereby doubled, since the film accomplishes this with not merely one couple but two. `Possession' may not provide the blood, gore, corpses and hair-raising thrills one usually associates with detective fiction, but its devotion to the drama found in words, poetry, language and romance makes for no less an engrossing experience.
This film offers some gorgeous visuals and some great performances -
those by Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle (a bit of a casting joke since
those two are famous for playing Jane Austen's Mr. Knightley and Elisabeth
Bennet, respectively) - but as a literary adaptation, the movie falls
on too many points. Sadly, the filmmakers have missed out on most of the
central themes of the novel, without substituting a sufficiently
interpretation of their own.
A.S. Byatt's novel examines the shifting relationships between men and women a century and a half apart - to that end, the characters in the two storylines (the Victorian and the contemporary) mirror each other deliberately. For some unfathomable reason, the screenwriters have decided to cut out completely two crucial characters from the modern-time storyline - Val, Roland's girlfriend, and the feminist (and Lesbian) researcher friend of Maud's, whose name I forget - their equivalents in the Victorian period are Ash's wife, and Christabel's lover Blanche.
One of the main interests of the original story lies in the ways in which the relationships between those characters have changed because of the changes in society that the 20th century has brought - particularly the way the main characters relate to each other (significantly, Maud is the stronger and more successful person in the modern-time relationship) - but also with respect to all the other characters involved (Roland and Val's relationship, which is based almost exclusively on sex, as contrasted with Ash's and his wife's relationship, which is entirely sex-less - the point here being that in a truly fulfilled relationship, these two things must be in balance).
Also, the characters, particularly that of Roland, are bent and twisted beyond recognition - I have nothing against Aaron Eckhard or his performance, but he simply plays a completely different character from the Roland Mitchell of the novel - who is *not* brash (nor is he celibate), but has a certain mousy-ness about him that is quite essential to the plot. Also, he is British for a reason, so making him into an American adds a completely wrong dimension to his and Maud's differences. Judging from the director's commentary, the main reason for casting Eckhard was that he's a buddie of director Neil La Bute's - it's a sad thing that the filmmakers decided to twist the character and plot to accomodate the actor, rather than making a more informed casting choice, as I am sure there are plenty of suitable British actors out there that would have fitted the part admirably.
Gwyneth Paltrow offers a convincing enough performance, and is well-cast as Maud Bailey - a woman whose physical attractiveness stands in the way of her being taken seriously as the bright academic she is. But she is not being given enough scope to be the reserved intellectual she is supposed to be, because her relationship with Roland developes far too quickly, and with not enough plausibility (particularly given a certain lack of chemistry between the two actors) - thereby missing another of the main themes (and contrasts) in the novel.
Having said that, the film is worth watching for its final five minutes alone - and incidentally, this is the one scene that catches most accurately the spirit, and the point, of the original novel.
I went to watch the movie with a little trepidation...after all, I've had
images of these characters in my head for years...but I also went with much
excitement, as I have been waiting for this movie to come for some time now.
First of all, Neil LaBute captured the snobbery of the whole academic scene very well, albeit very briefly. However, the British characters make so much comment about the fact that he's an American, that it borders on the ridiculous. Most of the actual British people I've met actually like Americans, and although they make the occasional joke about them, they don't carry on like the academicians in the movie. The point I am making is that the other characters seem to emphasize Roland's brashness so much that Roland doesn't even have a chance to show what he's truly made of, why he's there working with Professor Blackadder, over any dozens of other graduate students (British or not) who could have had his place.
Much has been said about making the character of Roland an American. Actually, I think that the choice of bringing an American into the academic mix not only changes this from something more suited to "Masterpiece Theatre" TV to something worthy of the big screen. Roland is the outsider in the book, a lower-class Brit, but he is also someone who harbors poetic aspirations and more passion for his chosen subject (Ash) than any of his colleagues. The fact that he is an American in the movie helps to emphasize his outsider identity. But the audience is never truly shown this at all in the movie.
This is the true misstep of the movie (and I have a feeling that perhaps some of it is on the cutting room floor): Roland's character is so underdeveloped in the movie that anyone coming to the movie without having read the book cannot help but feel he is a "fish-out-of-water." Sure, they have scenes of Roland reading a book of Ash poetry and a brief flash of Roland writing poetry in a notebook. But the latter scene seemed to exist only for Gwyneth Paltrow's character (Maud Bailey) to have another opportunity to make fun of Roland, and not to help reveal any sort of depth to his character.
As a fan of the book, I did enjoy the movie after all. The Victorian scenes were especially beautiful and I loved the seamless cutting between past and present in the same spaces, the same rooms. Since my only misgiving is that it was too short, I feel that LaBute was successful in his adaptation...I guess I will have to look to the DVD to see if he had intended to flesh out Roland's character more. Unfortunately, Roland is never even given a chance to show what he's made of, except for the fact that he steals a letter from a book -- the catalyst of both the movie and the book. His "American-ness" in this case -- his boldness and his guile -- is a good thing. It's just too bad that we don't see more of why he likes Ash so much and what really motivates him to take up the literary chase with Maud...and this is why I would recommend to anyone who's enjoyed the movie that they should read the book...it will amaze you how much LaBute managed to keep in, and it will astound you to become more acquainted with the quadrangle of characters and their individual passions and motivations.
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.
It needs to be said; this is not a very good film, but it does keep up
the appearance of one fairly well, carrying a facade of mystery,
romance and great literature. The director navigates two parallel story
lines one taking place between two secret lovers in the mid-1800s and
one taking place between two soon-to-be-lovers in the 21st century
the latter couple finding their romance as they are unlocking the
lovestory of the former... through letters. The bad news is that the
director only put his heart into one of the story lines, namely the
costume one, and as a result, the modern day lovestory between Gwyneth
Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart as literary sleuths suffers greatly.
Nevertheless, Possession makes for an OK diversion into quasi-romance.
Starting in the positive end then, period-junkies Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle are breathtaking to watch as poets during the Richmond period in England. They are two people who cannot be together, for one has chosen a wife and the other has chosen a life of 'shared solitude' (which is a euphemism for a lesbian relationship). Yet they begin a correspondence of love letters, which blossoms into a fully-fletched romance, embroidered in intrigue and quiet passion. Ehle's beautiful, reassuring smiles conveying the latter. At times their story is achingly romantic, so I think this aspect is very nicely tended to in the film. The graceful words in their letters even invests the film in a lyrical flow of sorts.
For our modern day story, Gwyneth Paltrow plays the icy literary expert Maud Bailey, who is also a descendant of Ehle's character, but clearly lacking in her passion. The film offers no satisfying explanation as to why the chilly Maud suddenly warms up and falls for Roland (Eckhart), other than they they are researching the lost letters together. I love Eckhart, but truly believe he is all wrong for this part. He ends up clumsy and flat and underdeveloped in the film (the novel probably offered more insight into his character, I don't know) and again, Maud's attraction to him seems far-fetched. I really can't stress how bad their storyline is; no description will do it justice.
Otherwise, Possession does a fair job of melting themes of love and love lost as it progresses and it occasionally manages thrilling. In order to get events unfolding, Maud and Roland unlock the mystery of the ancient lovestory by conveniently appearing clues, hidden hatches and notes. It's into Da Vinci Code territory with this approach to plot, but it works to a point. There is also seamless, fluent intercutting of the two parallel stories in the editing process. Neither a very solid nor very interesting template here, but "Possession" does make for a fine pastime.
6 out of 10
I recently watched Possession and went into it with low expectations...counting on it to compare with some of Paltrow's other flops like Bounce or Duets, but I am thrilled to say I was pleasantly surprised by this film. First of all, Paltrow's co-star is the fresh new actor, Aaron Eckhart and not played out Ben Affleck or non-actor musician, Huey Lewis. So right off the bat, I was pleased by that!Possession is an extremely intelligent film that oozes with intrigue as Paltrow and Eckhart race to solve the mystery of a heart-wrenching romantic scandal taken from history. It weaves together a relatable modern-day romance with an irresistibly passionate Victorian love story. This film is very "out of the box" and unexpected...an extremely unconventional romance that makes you think. I love those and think you will too!
I'm a big fan of Gwyneth Paltrow whom I regard as an actress of rare
and beauty so, in spite of many reviewers being parsimonious in their
for this film, I ventured out to London's Leicester Square to make my own
judgement and did not regret it. Following her performances in "Emma",
"Sliding Doors" and "Shakespeare In Love", for the fourth time Paltrow
adopts an impeccable English accent.
This time she plays an academic specialising in the work of an obscure 19th century poet called Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle, whom I enjoyed in "This Year's Love"). She is approached by an American researcher, Roland Michell, played by a permanently unshaven Aaron Eckhart, who has discovered a possible romantic connection between LaMotte and fellow poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam, last seen in that other costume drama "Gosford Park"). It turns out that Ash's marriage has no physical side (for reasons which are not explained), while LaMotte's lesbian relationship may not be as exclusive as was thought.
All this sounds more raunchy that it is. There is in fact little sex and no nudity at all on show; yet director Neil LaBute ensures that sensuality imbues scene after scene. Set against the unusual locations of Lincoln and Whiteby, the modern-day academics retrace the steps of the two poets both physically and romantically in cross-cutting scenes that reminded me of the structure of "The French Lieutenant's Woman". If you're a pubescent popcorn-guzzler, you'll hate this movie and find it terribly slow and literary (it is based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by A S Byatt); on the other hand, if you'd like something different from the usual mindless, blockbuster fare, you'll probably find this a refreshing change.
Two love stories unfold simultaneously in this attractive, sensitive, but not wholly successful adaptation of a popular novel. Eckhart plays an American literary researcher in England who stumbles upon some long lost and completely unknown love letters by a Victorian poet (who just happens to be having his centenary celebrated!) He pairs with an icy doctoral researcher (Paltrow) and they begin to piece together a heretofore undiscovered relationship between the married poet (Northam) and a fellow poetess (Ehle) who is involved in a long-standing lesbian love affair. The stories are presented in turns, often accented by some clever setups in which the same settings reveal jumps in time. Eckhart (an immensely appealing actor) took a lot of heat for his role which was originally intended for a British actor. His presence changes the entire flavor of the story as it was written in the source novel, yet he comes across as endearing as ever. Paltrow (an agonizingly overrated actress and overrated beauty) looks like Carolyn Bessette Kennedy only with a rigid, showy English accent. Her attention to the accent and to what she believes her character to be results in an almost robotic portrayal and nothing resembling a human being. The Victorian couple generates both interest and romance, yet isn't given the screen time of the contemporary couple. If a STAR hadn't been placed in the modern story, maybe the focus could have been more even and the Victorian story could have been given a touch more emphasis. Still, Northam and Ehle (who bears a striking resemblance to Meryl Streep) manage to make an impact. What was apparently quite enthralling and romantic on the page has become rather routine and familiar on the screen, though there are some lovely and thoughtful moments throughout. Some of the location scenery is gorgeous (as is Eckhart.) A host of British character actors round out the cast with results ranging from strong (Headey, Stephens) to campy (Eve) to wasted (Aird, Massey.) Someone needs to inform Paltrow that an accent, a bun and a turtleneck don't provide the performance alone. Some commitment, expression, thoughtfulness and especially realism are also in order!
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
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.
The first movie from Neil Labute ('In the Company of Men') was an
amazing film. I dare to say that it was almost a masterpiece: black
humor, splendid dialogs, original story, I love it. His next movie
('Your Friends & Neighbors') was an average black comedy and I was a
little disappointed, but then, with the wonderful 'Nurse Betty', Neil
Labute's prestige with me was redeemed. Possession is a romance with no
surprises: since the first meeting between Maud Bailey (the beautiful
Gwyneth Paltrow) and Roland Michel (Aaron Eckhart), the romance between
them is very predictable. Roland Michel, an American living and working
in London, finds some original documents that present a possible
evidence that a married and faithful poet of the eighteenth century
might have fallen in love with a lesbian poetess. Due to his research,
he is introduced to Doctor Maud Bailey and as far as they go deeper and
deeper in their research, they fall in love to each other. Their love
increases in parallel to their findings about the passion between the
poet and the poetess. The problem is not that the film is a bad movie,
but being a Neil Labute's one, we would expect much more than that. I
believe that other fans of Neil Labute will be also disappointed with
this plot. However, viewers who love romances with a beautiful cast and
landscapes may appreciate this film. My vote is six.
Title (Brazil): "Possessão" ("Possession")
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