Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:42 - Released 8/16/02

Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by A.S. Byatt, Possession should be a rapturous, romantic film about an ancient passion so intense that it transcends historical boundaries. It should be, but it isn't. It's mostly a dry, lifeless affair more concerned with exaggerating the differences between British people and Americans than establishing any kind of emotional resonance. Directed by Neil LaBute, it stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart as a couple of scholars who unearth letters revealing an illicit love affair between two 19th century poets (played in ongoing flashbacks by Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle). The whole idea is that the fiery, secret affair between these two long-dead writers infects the present-day scholars in a way they didn't expect, igniting a similar passion between them. But director LaBute, while crafting a remarkably detailed setting for the 1859 love affair, has left his present-day actors cold, forcing Paltrow and Eckhart to find their way around forced dialogue (penned by writers David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, who adapted the screenplay), trying vainly to search for some romantic feeling which, to be truthful, never properly develops between them.

Despite some rather irrelevant and tedious intrigue concerning various supporting characters who try to beat our protagonists to the discovery, this story is mainly about four people. Two of them, living in present-day London, are Roland Michell (Eckhart), a devoted American scholar of 19th-c. British poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash, and Maud Bailey, the great-great-great-niece of another English writer of the same period, Christabel LaMotte, whose life and work she studies with a similar enthusiasm. The other two, of course, are the writers themselves, whose clandestine love affair is played out before our eyes even as our modern-day researchers discover it. It begins when Roland finds two antique letters in a book in the London library, a book that once was in Ash's possession. Their contents, which hint at the affair, lead him to Maud, who at first looks upon his hunch as a ridiculous "goose chase" (especially since her aunt Christabel was supposedly involved in a lesbian love affair at the time), but is inexorably drawn into agreement with him as they unravel more clues and discover more letters. And as they become closer to the truth, they also become closer to each other, in every way.

This is all fine, of course, but the way Roland's and Maud's characters are drawn, simplistic and stereotypical, tends to erode the believability of the modern-day portion from the very beginning. Roland, the American, is boorish, good-looking, and about as scholarly as a wide receiver. Paltrow's character, on the other hand, is an icy British snob who wears her long blonde hair pulled back in a painful-looking bun and appears embarrassed even to be seen speaking to an American. Word has it that Roland's character is originally British in the book and the screenwriters made him American, but regardless of this their relationship is without chemistry from the start, when they're both rolling their eyes at each others' nationalistic quirks, to the end, when they're supposed to be falling in love. Although the period scenes of this movie are nicely rendered and honestly acted by Northam and Ehle, the modern-day part is really what the story is about, and it is not well-enough supported to really succeed as it should. ***½

Copyright 2002 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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