Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle

Neil LaBute

Writing credits: Neil LaBute, David Henry Hwang
Distributor: Focus Films
  (US 2002)

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we have access to more means of communication than ever before. Our telephones follow us everywhere. The Internet has made it possible for people to have friends, lovers, and business associates that they've never met. A would-be writer like Your Humble Critic can reach a worldwide audience. Words travel like lightning over broadband lines, punctuated by acronyms and emoticons: IMHO, RROFLMAO, IMHO, :0, :->...we send words in one-zero bits, and yet we actually say very little.

Imagine a world in which the only way to communicate with others is either face-to-face or by means of letters; letters not typed hurriedly and then sent via pressing a key, but painstakingly hand-written using pens dipped in ink bottles; in which people say things like "They say that women change. 'tis so, but you are ever constant" and "I am a creature of my pen; my pen is the best part of me." and "I shan't forget that first glimpse of your form; illuiminated as it was by flashes of lightning" and "Did we not -- did you not flame, and I catch fire?".Imagine a world before Freud and Deepak Chopra and Oprah and Dr. Phil, in which language illustrates the life of the heart, in which people feel their emotions and passions rather than analyze them to death.

Such is the world revealed in the correspondence between the (fictional, so don't bother consulting Bartlett's) Victorian poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash and feminist writer Christabel LaMotte in Neil LaBute's lush and completely out of character romance film POSSESSION. Ash, a loose amalgam of William Butler Yeats and Robert Browning, is reputed to have been completely devoted to his wife. While researching Ash for an exhibit at the London Museum, Roland Michell (LaBute repertory company stalwart Aaron Eckhart), a museum research assistant, stumbles upon two letters tucked into a book that appear to be passionate letters written by Ash to a woman obviously not his wife.

Intrigued by this potentially explosive discovery, Michell enlists the help of Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a clipped, businesslike, obviously emotionally wounded academic who teaches women's studies, and who it turns out, is distantly related to LaMotte. Together the pair, as if Nancy Drew had teamed up with the cuter of the Hardy Boys, embark on a quest to discover the truth about Ash and LaMotte's relationship, discovering an attraction to each other along the way (and a somewhat nefarious and quite gratuitous subplot).

On first glance, this kind of lushly romantic parallel story, based on A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel and bearing more than a passing resemblance to John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman and Karel Reisz 's 1982 film version, would seem to be unlikely territory for LaBute, whose usual milieu is how the relations between men and women often destroy both. Indeed, at times the screenplay, co-written by LaBute along with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, reflects Bute's customary worldview, as when Maud cries in frustration after the discovery of how a series of misunderstandings caused a permanent rift between the 19th century lovers, "We're all doomed to just tear each other apart." And yet instead of LaBute's trademark cynicism, POSSESSION, for all its resemblance at times to the more sour entries in the Merchant-Ivory oeuvre, allows, in the unlikely personage of Aaron Eckhart's character, a scintilla of optimism.

POSSESSION is gorgeously shot by Jean Yves Escoffier in some of the most spectacular locations in the Yorkshire countryside. The Victorian scenes have a lush, sensual pre-Raphaelite look, with warm lighting, lace curtains, and lush green rolling hills. The contemporary story settings are more urban and angular, with neutral shades providing the overall effect. These themes are also carried into the costuming and even the performances. Jeremy Northam sports a billowy poet shirt and a wavy, wild coiffure that makes him look like Heathcliff by way of Alan Rickman. He smolders his passion through his eyes. Aaron Eckhart, who here bears an astonishing and sometimes distracting resemblance to the Harrison Ford of twenty years ago, is all angles, stubble, and scruffiness. Jennifer Ehle as Christabel wears a series of lush velvety gowns that resemble a Victorian Renaissance Faire look rather than the tightly corseted and bustled gowns we associate with the Victorian era. Where Ehle is soft and fleshy and glowing, Gwyneth Paltrow is stiff, brittle, and angular in severe black, white and gray clothing.

Someone is obviously trying mightily to sell Gwyneth Paltrow as the Second Coming of Audrey Hepburn, but the resemblance ends at the similar clotheshorse figure. Hepburn had a warm glow underneath the elegant fashions, but while Paltrow does a decent approximation of an upper class twit British accent, she seem to somehow able to garner acclaim merely by standing around sulking but looking great in clothes. Maud is certainly , as her sometime suitor Fergus (Toby Stephens) says, "a bit of a ball buster," but while Jennifer Ehle's luminous Christabel is able to answer a remark such as Ash's "You cut me, Madam" with "I only meant to scratch," Maud's idea of witty repartee is "I suppose I can put up with you for an evening." The problem is that while Paltrow certainly does a reasonably decent job of portraying angry and wounded, there's no sense that all this pain is merely covering up for a poetic soul. There is no way I will ever believe that when the country in which this film is set contains the likes of Kate Winslet, Gina McKee, and even Rachel Weisz, Gwyneth Paltrow is the best they could do.

If the contemporary story has any credibility whatsoever, it's due to a breakthrough performance by Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart until this point has been Neil LaBute's unlikely and somewhat twisted muse, and this is a complete break from the parade of scumbags he's portrayed in the director's previous films. This is the kind of charming rogue role that Harrison Ford would have walked away with twenty years ago, and while this kind of character usually exists just to display the female character in the way males in classical ballet do, the emotional center of the contemporary rests on Eckhart's admittedly hunky shoulders, and he balances it perfectly. While initially, Roland seems to be one of those broad-brush American characters we see all too often in British productions, his relentless pursuit of his quest renders him a kind of Indiana Jones-style adventurer. This swashbuckle he brings to the role ultimately overrides the suspension of disbelief required initially of the viewer, that this guy who looks like he should be the Hunky All-American Dude on Survivor 5, this guy whose clunky idea of a romantic statement is "I want to see if there's an us in you and me", is a scholar of Victorian literature.

POSSESSION forces us to ask ourselves: Are we really better off now that we are so relentlessly rational? Now that instead of slowly unlacing corsets (and don't tell anyone, but Victorian corsets had hooks in the front that makes the painstaking unlacing that takes place in period pictures unnecessary), we merely pull sweaters over our heads; now that we know everything there is to know about sex, do we really know any mjore about sexuality? About desire? About what it is that makes people come together? And do we really suffer any less pain as a result, or just a different kind?

These are some heavy questions for a summer release to ponder, and POSSESSION does so in a way that taps into both the emotions and the intellect, wrapped in a beautifuly decorated package.

- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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