(PG-13) 4 stars I"ve read with amusement a number of reviews for Possession, which opened earlier in other parts of the country. In almost every case, the writer expressed astonishment that Neil LaBute, creator of the savage films In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, ended up at the helm of such an unabashedly romantic movie.
But it really isn"t such a stretch. In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors explore the politics of relationships and, while Possession is an infinitely sunnier production, it too plays on the foibles of people negotiating relationships with each other. The new film is based on the Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name by A.S. Byatt, a 500 plus page tale that many believed would be impossible to adapt to the big screen. I have no idea how successful LaBute was with the novel-to-film translation, but I can tell you that he has crafted a sweeping romance as intelligent as it is lush. Leap-frogging between the Victorian era and contemporary times, Possession offers smart, appealing characters, fine acting and gorgeous British landscapes. Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American (a big change from the novel) on a fellowship to London in order to study Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) is an expert on Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, as well as being one of her descendants. They meet when Roland discovers a group of letter drafts by Ash that suggest a romantic relationship between him and LaMotte. Maud is skeptical - after all, Ash was known for writing poems of devotion to his wife and LaMotte was a feminist and lesbian - but intrigued enough to join Roland for some literary sleuthing. Obstacles in their path include Sir George (Graham Crowden), an old poot who considers the letters his property; Cropper (Trevor Eve), an American academic whose interest in Ash is skewed towards his lifestyle more than his art; and Roland"s boss, Blackadder (Tom Hickey), a benign, but obsessed scholar. As the investigation proceeds, growing ever more entertainingly unscrupulous along the way, the film shoots back in time to observe the poets. Ash (Jeremy Northam) is a reserved gentleman who displays his feelings only when he deems the time appropriate. LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) is an adventurer, boldly indulging new passions even as her lover, Blanche (Lena Headley), tries to deal with her growing sense of jealousy. The Victorian romance evolves, while a contemporary one slowly blossoms between Maud and Roland. True products of our time, their every move is tentative. They anticipate, they consider, they examine implications, they think too much. When they do act, they immediately start mulling over the possible consequences of their actions. As they revisit spots where the liaison occurred over a century earlier, LaBute finds some delightful methods of moving from one era to another, such as showing Maud and Roland driving out of sight in a contemporary car while a 19th century train appears along a ridge above them, heading the opposite direction. Nice. The actors are wonderful. Gwyneth Paltrow, whose flawless British accent seems more natural than her real American one, plays Maud as if she was born to the role. Politely aloof without ever appearing icy, she gradually adjusts to the rhythms of her new colleague, although her face reflects the concerns harbored within. Aaron Eckhart, a veteran of every LaBute film, but known to most people only as the kindly biker in Erin Brockovich, gives his finest performance to date. Eager and impulsive but unfailingly polite, he remains a gentleman while pursuing his romantic goals. Together, Paltrow and Eckhart personalize their characters so well that you can almost overlook the fact that they are the best-looking pair of researchers ever to walk the planet. Jeremy Northam, who occasionally comes off as overly stiff onscreen, contributes a quiet, warm turn as Ash, while Jennifer Ehle is delightfully layered as LaMotte, maintaining an appropriately prim demeanor while displaying the rebellious soul prepared to follow her desires regardless of the cost. The film is more colorful when the two appear together. The camera work throughout the film fits its subject, with LaBute presenting an impossibly beautiful England. His only visual misstep comes with a single shot depicting a close-up of Paltrow"s face filling the left side of the screen, with a full body shot of Eckhart standing by the ocean on the right. The composition of the frame, which may have been intended as a joke, looks exactly like an early "90s ad for Calvin Klein"s "Obsession." Possession marks another encouraging step in the fascinating career of Neil LaBute. I once wondered in print how long the filmmaker could continue making movies that put relationships under the microscope. It appears that the answer is forever, and thanks for that.