Most people don't think about love this way, don't think about love in the abstract much at all, but poets are paid to ponder, and in their emotionally charged, passionate points of view, love and loss, rapture and tragedy have always been married. The idea of communion with Other is simultaneously desirable and threatening. That is why, wherever there is sex, the politics of sex will not be far behind.
Modern men and women further complicate things with our tendency to think that love -- and life -- used to be simpler back in the good old days. We take the past and reinvent it, putting it into neat little boxes with labels that make us feel comfortable or superior, depending on the occasion. With most of life's more important things -- history, literature, love -- we are easily possessed by a desire to try to take possession of things we can never really own. We think we know the past in the same way we think we know about love. And the truth of the matter is we don't know jack.
The surprisingly successful film adaptation of A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel Possession tackles this mess we make of things, weaving a highly intelligent and wholly enjoyable assessment of attraction, abandon and -- of all things -- academia. The structure is the simple story of present-day literary scholars Maud Bailey and Roland Michell (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart), who stumble onto the previously unknown correspondence of famous Victorian-era poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and lesser-known feminist poetess Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). It's a twisting two-for-one, the burgeoning relationship of the contemporary couple playing quite nicely off their discoveries of a historic, hidden love affair. Possession is a deceptively simple film, on the surface just another entertaining partial period-piece love story. But a smart script adaptation and warm performances, particularly from Northam and Ehle, challenge the audience to look for more.
Long a darling of the lit crit crowd, Byatt can be a daunting read, much less screen adaptation; she peoples her worlds with complicated, intelligent characters and peppers their thoughts and conversations with the terminology of literary theory and gender studies. She constructs with one hand and deconstructs with the other, a charmer and a cynic all at once; she is, as it turns out, the perfect project for director Neil LaBute.
Many may ask what business a filmmaker best known for the calculating cruelty of In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors has making a film that, at the end of the day, believes in love. All the business in the world, it turns out. The loves of Possession -- while they are very grand, passionate, romantic loves -- are still ultimately about sexual identity, power and the politics of the self, all well within LaBute territory. The film's four main performances subtly accentuate the full spectrum of these negotiations: who gives, who takes, why it matters. Love is a glorious choice and a wonderful danger. Paltrow plays fresh-faced frigidity as if it were her second nature. Eckhart's Roland Michell (here effortlessly transmogrified into an American studying abroad) is a bumbler, an unsure chance-taker who nicks a few old love letters from a library on a whim and winds up changing (or maybe just more fully realizing) history. The film's fire comes from Northam and Ehle, Northam's Ash a study in quiet, fierce concentration and Ehle's LaMotte the most reluctant -- and romantic -- of them all.
LaBute does well by not trying too hard. Like any good scavenger (and some of the literally grave-digging scholars who survive the novel to appear in his script), he picks the bones of Byatt's story for the fleshiest parts. The powerful poetry of the novel remains surprisingly intact, blenderized a bit but absolutely recognizable; LaBute weaves us a Norton anthology of Ash and LaMotte works, Byatt having provided us reams more. The film necessarily loses a lot of Byatt's rather witty analysis of academia, Victorian poetry, and cultural and literary criticism, focusing less on how we deal with history and more on how we deal with each other. Still, this Possession is a good nine-tenths.
LaBute's studied direction largely sits back and lets the words do the job; his technique is a kid glove governed by an iron will. His pacing of the scholarly search is slow but never plodding, incrementally building to a bittersweet climax for both sets of characters, present and past. In case his message hasn't quite gotten through yet, LaBute captivates with his final scene, a devastating visual metaphor demonstrating that the truest of human things, the imprints of the heart and the mind, are not always written in stone; sometimes, they are written on the wind.