Possession

| September 5, 2002

Neil Labute, the director who brought us In the Company of Men and Nurse Betty seems to have softened up a bit for his most recent feature, Possession. In this directorial attempt he ushers us into a gentler time and place with a story of romance and mystery.
Possession is a film about two different couples falling in love in two different eras, mixed up with a mystery. Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is a graduate assistant to a well known professor, and while Michell is a competent academic, he clearly does not fit in with these stodgy English aristocrats. Jokes are flying throughout the first half of the film, to make sure the audience clearly understands the extreme degree to which Roland does not fit with these people. He is passionate about his work for all the right reasons which is something most of these academics can no longer relate to. In addition to his work ethic he is also American which sets him apart in a way one can only fully understand if one has lived in a foreign country. I found the jokes about his Americanism hilarious and very true to form, having lived with my Scottish husband both in England and Scotland. Many of the lines said to him were exactly the type of comments I would hear daily. It was a credit to the writers for hitting the subtleness of the disdain British people sometimes show for Americans.
Roland finds some racy letters from Ash, a poet from the Victorian Era that appear, to him anyway, to be written to someone other than Ash’s wife. He assumes the letters were written to another poet, Christabel LaMotte. When he decides to investigate further he naturally requires the help of some experts in the field. The leading expert on LaMotte is Maud Bailey, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow. At first, Maud makes it clear she is less than impressed with the American graduate student who is attempting to overturn a very old and reliable theory. She won’t accept the possibility of Ash as anything more than a poet who was very much in love with his wife. Her evidence for the truthfulness of the theory is also the fact that LaMotte was a well documented lesbian. It does appear as if Roland is on a wild goose chase.
Aaron Eckhart, who has appeared in other Labuke films does an excellent job portraying a man lost in his subject matter. He gathers momentum as an academic by becoming more intrigued by Ash and these letters, while at the same time overcoming some personal glitches that don’t allow intimacy. Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud is able to pull of a very believable English accent. I have to be honest, I am not her biggest fan but her performance in this film has made me think twice about her abilities. She did a fine job here as a cold, undemonstrative woman dealing with some issues of her own. She was perfect in this in the same way she was exactly right in The Royal Tenenbaums. Gwyneth Paltrow plays even keeled, non-demonstrative roles like no other, her abilities, however stop short when there is excessive acting needed. The scene when Roland and Maud have an argument leading to her storming out lacked any real conviction. I remember wishing she had just refused to do that scene or they had cut it, because if they had I could have honestly called her performance one of her best. As it stands it just shone an unflattering light on her inabilities as an actress. The two of them together did not leave me with a completely believable image of them as a couple, either. They were fine, but that is about it.
Jeremy Northam, who played Ash and Jennifer Ehle, as Christabel LaMotte were wonderfully solid and totally believable as two people stuck in a very difficult place. They, mostly with their eyes and gestures wonderfully portrayed a relationship built and sustained on real love. There weren’t a lot of words moving their story forward and so it was a good thing the actors were able to pull off their roles so believably.
The story jumps back and forth in time between the two worlds. The techniques used for the transitions were wonderful and interesting. Both stories were solid in their ability to hold the audience’s attention. I was never disappointed at going back to the other story as I was always curious. It is not an easy task to have a story within a story, in terms of continuity and interest, however Labute made sure all his t’s were crossed and his I’s dotted with this latest film.

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