possession (2002)


director: neil labute

gwyneth paltrow, aaron eckhart, jennifer ehle, jeremy northam

As a film about romance, Neil LaBute's Possession tries to be both intelligent and passionate, both modern and timeless, by showing us not one but two love stories, separated by over a century. Based on a novel by A.S. Byatt, it makes the argument that love is badly served by the committments lovers make to ideas and conventions, and that sadness and misery is the only result of thwarted love.

In the present day, we're introduced to Aaron Eckhart as Roland, a struggling academic who's stumbled on evidence linking a venerable Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash to an obscure female poet, Christabel LaMotte. He teams up with Maud, a descendant of LaMotte's and a fiercely protective expert and guardian of her legacy. As played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Maud is brittle and terse, a controlled neurotic who sizzles with unhappiness, and it's plain as day that she needs someone like Roland for a shot at real passion.

Real passion, however, is something that both Maud and Roland are terrified of, and they retreat into a huddled, sexless language of fear and rationalization that's our principle legacy of the war between the sexes, fought with particular bloodthirstiness on college campuses and scholarly journals. They're a maddening and pitiful pair, especially when compared to Randolph and Christabel, whose passion is undeniable despite the social conventions that should keep them apart.

They're also played by Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle, two British actors who casually dominate almost everything they're in, Northam with his always-humming threat of dash and charisma, Ehle with an intelligence that's proved unwaveringly sexy. The darting forays into the past and their affair, away from the unhappy present with its zipless lovers, are frustratingly brief.

There is, incidentally, a mystery somewhere in there, and a cast of secondary characters who, in the Byatt book, were much more richly developed. They've been sacrificed in LaBute's film in favor of a simple plot dynamic, comparing real passion with its frightened, modern shadow. In previous LaBute films like In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbours, the battle of the sexes was depicted like trench warfare, gruesome and endless, and at the beginning of Possession, there are hints that the director is warming to the subject, but that edge evaporates as the film burrows into a character-driven plotline that feels, in the end, a bit too thin to support even the inevitable happy ending.