One poet, a lesbian living in Victorian England, writes to another, her married lover: "No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed." It's a lovely sentiment, yet one not taken to heart by the participants in Possession, a dual love story spanning two centuries. Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) and Randolph Ash (Jeremy Northam) are the poets in question, already committed and contented in long-term relationships, until they meet one another by chance and begin a clandestine courtship in letters. Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), a corduroy-clad American grad student conducting research at the British Museum, and Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a frosty Brit and gender studies professor, are their 20th-century counterparts, clashing academics keen to uncover the heretofore unknown affair between LaMotte's feminist icon and the poet laureate Ash.
Based on A.S. Byatt's novel, the film moves seamlessly between the time periods. The camera glides from the 19th-century blossoming love between LaMotte and Ash to the modern-day flirtation of Maud and Roland as they unearth new evidence of the poets' affair. It's a paper chase condensed for the film to an absurdly breakneck pace ' and who knew academic research could be so darn sexy? Previously, director Neil LaBute has been noted almost exclusively for his writing (In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors), but here he distinguishes himself as an able visual stylist, with a fluid camera and an admirable sense of framing.
Much has been made of Possession's swerve in style for LaBute. His earlier works are caustic meditations on the failures of love, cohabitation, even humanity. On paper, a move into swooning melodrama might not seem logical. But despite their pessimism, LaBute's previous films have been passionately charged works, making the director more than equipped to handle Possession's fieriness. Or so you'd think ' one has to wonder if Byatt's romanticism and LaBute's pessimism have simply canceled each other out. Roland and Maud are meant to make some awful clanging noise when they meet, but the matchup between the boisterous Yank and the stodgy Brit is uninspired. Christabel and Randolph's relationship spins on a more compelling conflict, yet they seem swathed in "Masterpiece Theatre" piety, and their love ' born of letters ' translates poorly to the screen.
Possession is by no means a disaster. It's prettily performed, prettily put together. Yet for a story set in the center of a fire, LaBute and his players have suited themselves in some mighty flame-retardant threads.