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Possession (2002)

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 02/02/07 15:00:47

"Smooth change of pace for Neil LaBute."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It's about an hour or more into 'Possession' before it arrives -- the devastating Gwyneth Crying Face, known to drive women, men, and even the occasional cat into sympathetic sniffles.

I first saw the GCF in Seven, one of Gwyneth Paltrow's early toe-dips in Hollywood, and marvelled at the young actress's understanding that what makes an audience sob is not an actor who blubbers and expels snot all over the upholstery, but one who tries hellaciously not to cry. Gwyneth herein plays a clipped, cool British researcher who would sooner chew rusty bottle-caps than make a display of her emotions, so she gets to repress her tears at several points. I was cheered. Some want Vin Diesel snowboarding in front of an avalanche; give me Paltrow biting the insides of her lips and barely holding her anguish at bay.

There are other things to recommend Possession, too, though many critics, eager to remind themselves that they also read between screenings of Swimfan and Feardotcom, have already told you the film doesn't hold a candle to A.S. Byatt's intricate source novel. I wouldn't know; I have yet to get around to the book. What I can report is that, at first glance, this seems an awfully sharp detour for director Neil LaBute, whose past work (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors) has dealt with the ways in which the nature of romance is red in tooth and claw. But LaBute has been gesturing towards other concerns -- his Nurse Betty was downright sweet -- and Possession, in his care, is an illustration of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Or, in English, love sucked just as much then as it does now.

Stubbly grad student Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart, testing the new waters of non-shitheadedness in a LaBute film) stumbles across a letter written by the 1859-era English poet he's researching. The poet, one Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), appears to have drafted (but not sent) a love note to a woman not his wife. More enticing still, the woman might well be another poet of the day, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), long thought to be a lesbian, and claimed as same by like-minded readers for decades. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth), a LaMotte researcher as well as her descendant, scoffs at Roland's theories, but her scoffing stops once more evidence is dusted off and brought to light. Her scoffing at the very existence of Roland stops, too, when the plot contrives for them to share a bed.

Possession is a dual-track exploration of romantic mores then and now. In both stories, we witness repression out of necessity: Ash can't abandon his ailing wife; Christabel does have something going on with portraitist Blanche (Lena Headey); and Roland and Maud, modern anti-lovers to their very toes, are of course wary of handing their heart to someone new who might stomp on it. LaBute and his overqualified co-scripters (playwright David Henry Hwang and sometime Jane Campion collaborator Laura Jones) segue smoothly between centuries, perhaps giving a little more screen time to a pompous American professor (Trevor Eve) and his skunky Brit cohort (Toby Stephens) than is necessary; one doesn't expect a movie like this to climax with a near-disinterment and fisticuffs, but, hey, even E.M. Forster arranged for a character to die by bookcase.

A film like this rides on the quality of the acting, and the Brits -- Northam and Ehle -- invest their forbidden love with centuries of fine repressed English tradition (I'm a pushover for stuff like that; I could watch and re-watch Remains of the Day for the remains of this year), more implosive than explosive. The very American Eckhart and the faux-Brit Paltrow (once again unfurling her perfectly presentable English accent) itch with modern impatience -- they want to get to the bottom of their literary mystery, and you strongly suspect that at least part of their quest is sublimation for their growing attraction. They want proof that star-crossed love can work, and when they start uncovering evidence that things didn't go so breezily for Ash and Christabel, Maud chokes up and wishes to back off.

But LaBute doesn't, and even the guaranteed tear-jerker he gives us at the end didn't spoil my fun, though I of course wished he'd found some way to place Gwyneth on the scene, moved by the sight into giving us one last GCF. Still, we can't have everything.

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