Possession
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

 

Possession is directed by Neil LaBute and adapted from the prize-winning novel by A.S. Byatt by writers David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), Laura Jones and LaBute. The hint I got-but I haven't read the book-is that there's a miscast character, whose nationality also gets changed for the movie.

This is the story of two people-Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart) and Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow)-who go on a sort of treasure hunt to understand the mysterious connection between two nineteenth-century fictional characters: Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (the dashing Jeremy Northam) and poet Christabel LaMotte, played by the delicious Jennifer Ehle. The genres are mystery and historical romance, with some interesting details on literary scholarship and research thrown in along the way.

LaBute directed the digital video movie, In the Company of Men, a stark story about the different planets on which men and women live, and this movie has some of that, both when it comes to the nineteenth-century couple and the twentieth-century one. But if you don't already know the story, it's pretty absorbing, and some of the gender dynamics (especially the modern ones) are only minor, albeit annoying, distractions.

The great news is that Paltrow is at her absolute best, demonstrating, with this role-as a professor of gender studies and descendant of LaMotte-that she can truly act. Unfortunately, her leading man isn't up to the job. It doesn't help that I kept wanting him to take a shower, wash his clothes, and shave. I guess that's what we're supposed to think a graduate student looks like. The other couple, on the other hand, is striking, matched, and explosive. I wanted much more of them.

The film uses a rather unimaginative storytelling technique, alternating shots between the two couples in the two different periods, sometimes in the same physical location. At first it seems clever-a way of providing clues to the mystery of the plot-but because it's repeated over and over, without variation, it becomes overly predictable and boring.

The most disturbing aspect of Possession-a movie that should be, in my view, entertainingly intriguing, sexy, and heartrending-is its celebration of heterosexuality, not as romance, but as the family. Christabel has a companion, a pre-Raphaelite painter named Blanche (Lena Headey), to match Ash's married state. This relationship (and his marriage) remain radically underdeveloped, to the point where one wonders why it's there. The answer may be to celebrate the family and to celebrate the birth of new life from the inevitability of death. Isn't it time we stopped using homosexuality to tell that story?

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.