When Nurse Betty was released in the fall of 2000, critics both pro and con asked whether director Neil LaBute had gone soft. He hadn't: for all her sweetness—and knowing LaBute, because of it—Rene Zellweger's soap opera-mad innocent underwent a drubbing at the hands of her mostly male exploiters that was all of a savage piece with the sexual politics in In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors. Whether one thinks of LaBute as a cynic or a rigorous moralist plumbing the depths of human depravity—his sadism toward his characters can be smug, even crowing—there's no denying his intellect or his willingness to strike new ground. In Nurse Betty, LaBute also unveiled a side of himself we hadn't yet seen: the giddy romantic. Or maybe just the Hollywood director for hire. It wasn't clear which, but either way qualifies LaBute as the official movie interpreter of Possession, a Booker Prize-winning novel by British writer A.S. Byatt.
Byatt's 500-plus-page tome, a time-traveling tale of parallel love affairs, one between scholars slowly atrophying in stuffy late-20th-century academe, the other an illicit liaison between Victorian poets loosely based on Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is as ambitious as it is marketable. Studded with breathy letter writing and some pretty good faux-Victorian poetry, the novel is also a meditation on the idea of Romance in literature and life. Byatt advances the clever but hardly original claim that the Victorians approached love and sex with more matter-of-fact candor than we dreary moderns can muster, precisely because they lacked our dubious freedom to distance ourselves from both subjects with endless chatter. At its best, Possession traffics in the power of lyrical language to stimulate, challenge and seduce, a power we've lost in today's babel of talking heads and talk-show participants. Like most period pieces, the book rewrites the past into an argument against the present.
LaBute has skillfully pruned away an unwieldy cast of supporting characters, as well as the novel's loftier digressions, so that Possession ends up framing the pressing Hollywood question of how long it will take for Gwyneth Paltrow to shake down her golden hair from its prissy bun. Paltrow plays Maud Bailey, a buttoned-up professor of gender studies at a provincial English university whose specialty is the work of Christabel LaMotte, a free-thinking Gothic poet from whom Maud is descended and who, according to Maud's trendily analytical research, passed her days in happy proto-feminist rural seclusion with her lesbian lover. Maud is not amused when Roland, an impoverished young research assistant played by LaBute's longtime lead actor Aaron Eckhart, shows up with two suggestive letters written to LaMotte by Randolph Henry Ash, a grand old man of Victorian poetry long believed to be a devoutly monogamous husband. Overcoming an initial mutual dislike (he thinks she's an ice queen, she distrusts men, both are sexually screwed-up to the point of paralysis), Roland and Maud track down the rest of the correspondence and, with other deviously interested parties in hot pursuit, follow a trail of lovers' trysts in the English and French countrysides.
Cutting back and forth between the two couples, LaBute keeps faith with Byatt's sense of the past as a place to repair and fulfill the pent-up yearnings of an allegedly liberated present. Cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier has lit the Victorian sequences with a vibrant pre-Raphaelite glow, and Jennifer Ehle, who plays LaMotte, reliably unleashes her slow, radiant Madonna smile—the one that so bewitched audiences who saw her in television's Pride and Prejudice—on Jeremy Northam's Ash, who is all brooding dark eyes and sexily wayward forelock. The two actors work some mild romance-novel magic together, but they're exactly who you'd expect to see cast in a production of this kind, as is Paltrow's Maud, enunciating capably in letter-perfect upper-class Brit and defrosting nicely as she warms to her ancestor—and to Roland. The lone exception to all this BBC casting is Eckhart, who, transposed here from a working-class Englishman in the novel to a brash American, sticks out like a sore thumb. One expects LaBute to have some serious fun with this incongruity, but this Roland is no more than a regulation commitment-phobe, as well as a butt for some rather limp American-baiting that pales before Byatt's contempt for all things transatlantic. And only in one scene, an agonized confrontation between Ash and LaMotte at a sance, do we catch a glimpse of LaBute's old obsession with the gender wars; it's as though the director is determined to erase all trace of himself from the project. Watching Possessionis a movie experience not much deeper than you'd get on your couch watching Masterpiece Theater or Mystery!—pleasant enough, but oh so soft.
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Possession was directed by Neil LaBute; written by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute, based on the novel by A.S. Byatt; produced by Paula Weinstein and Barry Levinson. Now playing countywide.