Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey, Holly Aird, Toby Stephens, Trevor Eve, Tom Hickey, Georgia Mackenzie, Tom Hollander, Graham Crowden, Anna Massey, Craig Crosbie, Christopher Good
Written by: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil LaBute, based on the novel by A.S. Byatt
Directed by: Neil LaBute
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality and some thematic elements
Running Time: 102
Date: 08/16/2002

Possession (2002)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Poetry in Motion

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Writer/director Neil LaBute made a stunning debut in 1997 with In the Company of Men, and at the same time found himself labeled as a misogynist by those who misunderstood (or did not even see) the film. In 2000, he delivered Nurse Betty, a brilliantly daring and original comedy about a woman obsessed with meeting her favorite soap opera character in real life. Though it was far more digestible than Men, it still came packed with a serious mean streak. Now LaBute surprises us again with his new film Possession, which opens today in Bay Area theaters. Possession accomplishes precisely what Robert Altman did last year with Gosford Park: It takes dead aim and knocks the costume picture off its high horse.

In this picture, the dark, mean, misogynist LaBute is gone. Possession is so unabashedly romantic and passionately goofy that it not only confirms LaBute as one of America's great talents but also clocks in as one of the year's best American films. LaBute's indispensable leading man Aaron Eckhart stars as Roland Michell, a perpetually unshaven poetry scholar light years away from his In the Company of Men narcissist and his Nurse Betty mullet-head. While leafing through a volume on (fictional) Victorian romantic poet Randolph Henry Ash in the London library, Roland stumbles upon a sheaf of unmailed letters to one Christabel LaMotte, another poet (also fictional). Since Ash was supposed to have remained perpetually faithful to his wife, it opens up a breathtaking new twist on the past -- perhaps the most passionate illicit affair this side of The Bridges of Madison County. Roland tracks down Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow, sporting another British accent), a LaMotte expert, to help him discover the truth.

From there, the movie cuts to flashbacks of Ash (Jeremy Northam) and LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), as well as Ash's wife (Anna Massey), and LaMotte's lesbian lover. We follow their footsteps as Roland and Maud discover more and more clues about their lives and loves. Roland and Maud journey across Europe following the ancient trail, Maud recalling snippets of LaMotte's poetry at opportune moments. Though they're occupying the present, the film does a remarkable job of making their journey seem out of time. It's inevitable that Roland and Maud will fall in love, but LaBute stacks everything against them. Roland has given up on women permanently and doesn't want to get tied down. Maud already has a boyfriend, and besides her emotions tend to run toward the cool side. Not to mention that she's a serious, scholarly Brit and he's a carefree American. Of course, none of this means anything. For all the sexual tension in the air, they might as well be jumping all over each other like a pair of rabbits.

LaBute seems to understand the glee involved with such a romance, the little tickle of excitement that comes when one's in love and immersed in a world of passion. Even the flashbacks -- which would normally be the stodgy and boring part of the movie -- tingle. The minor plot contrivances reflect the overall giddiness of the story. Roland is lucky enough to overhear the villain's evil plot while lurking through a darkened library, and everything ends with a routine chase scene through a graveyard -- over Ash's newly opened grave.

As an actor, Eckhart seems to be perfectly in sync with LaBute; his performance is an endearing combination of irony and earnestness. We know he's winking at us (his permanent 5 o'clock shadow is a clue), but the excitement we feel at his unraveling the mystery and falling in love is genuine. LaBute also relies heavily on the beautiful widescreen cinematography of Jean-Yves Escoffier, who also worked on Nurse Betty, as well as Leos Carax's The Lovers on the Bridge, Harmony Korine's Gummo and Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting. Escoffier is a genius at capturing mood through location and weather, and in Possession, you can practically smell the fresh English air and the hormones flying around. (One scene that takes place by a waterfall is especially potent.)

If the film has a drawback, it's the very popular Booker Award-winning novel by A.S. Byatt that it's based on. Passionate fans of the book (which I have not read) will probably balk at the changes LaBute and company made, such as turning the Roland character into an American. Clint Eastwood took on the same challenge when he made Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; barely anyone recognized the merits of that film because they were too busy griping about whether or not it followed the best-selling book. I predict the same kind of grumblings over Possession. Nevertheless, I probably experienced more sheer joy over this film than just about any other American film this year. It's a movie I'd take a date to any day of the week, and it's even perfect for romantic loners -- the type who likes to curl up and cry over a good book.

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