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.