starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle
screenplay by David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones and Neil LaBute, based on the novel by A.S. Byatt
directed by Neil LaBute
by Walter Chaw There's the seed of an interesting idea in Neil LaBute's Possession--something traceable to A.S. Byatt's melodramatic novel of the same name: the film's one clumsily extended trope that it is about keepsakes and the desire for memento mori and memento amor as it manifests amongst intellectuals. That this seed never germinates, limping along before being crushed beyond recognition by an unforgivable grave-robbing sequence is due to LaBute's icy disconnection (badly misplaced here) and the horrific realization that Possession is two stultifying formulas vying for screentime.
On the one hand, the picture is a heaving-bosoms bodice-ripper circa 1859 featuring fictional poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and his correspondence-inspired love affair with fictional lesbian poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). That these two are make-believe is pretty obvious (snippets of Byatt's horrible "Victorian" poems prove less Tennyson (the actual poet laureate in 1859) than "moony fifteen-year-old"); more surprising is the fact that besides being fictional, LaBute's historical lovers don't appear to have a pulse.
On the other hand, Possession is an insipid present-day meet-cute romance between gifted graduate student Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) and icy women's studies professor Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), allegedly falling in love as they unearth the incriminating evidence of Ash and LaMotte's tepid indiscretions. The parallel stories lead to an unusual amount of showy transitions (reminding more than once of this year's abhorrent Triumph of Love) and stupid Encyclopedia Brown revelations (the discovery of a pack of letters underneath a doll is the height of Nancy Drew insipid), highlighting all of the shortcomings of the novel (plot, character) while illuminating none of its marginal charms (language).
Possession is torturous viewing scored and narrated by Gabriel Yared's soaring violins that for as invasive as they are admittedly provide the only insight into the feelings of the characters for one another. Though it seems wholly unlikely that dead fish Ash and cold fish LaMotte could have any kind of relationship, it's even more unlikely that typically immature Yank Roland could strike up any kind of flame with typically icy Brit Maud. The introduction of a pair of villains in evil Professor Cropper (Trevor Eve) and his henchman, the duplicitous Fergus Wolff (Toby Stephens), is so wretched and fatigued that the whole of the project is suffused with this nameless inward gazing dread. Possession's tailspin begins early and never stops until it thuds to the pavement with a never-effective "Little House on the Prairie" shot of a little girl running along a verdant hill.
It's tempting to attribute the leaden weight of cliché in Possession to some kind of wicked LaBute barb about the zombie-march of most modern romances, but I fear that the film is deadly serious in its Harlequin intentions. It is easily the director's lowest-aspiring piece, a miserable bit of landscape pornography bound to a somehow more miserable pair of sweaty romances with a ridiculous mystery subplot that completely fails to distract from the picture's shapeless awfulness. Although I find LaBute's films to be misanthropic, occasionally difficult to watch, and sometimes bollocks, I have never until Possession found one to be boring and trite. Originally published: August 16, 2002.