While researching the life of Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), English academic Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) is confronted by a junior American research student on a London scholarship, Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), who is studying the great Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), whose romantic poems to his wife are about to be exhibited with some fanfare. Roland has come across material – in a manner not entirely academic – which suggests an illicit romantic link between Christabel and Randolph. Maud’s dismissive imperiousness soon turns to curiosity, and her aloof cool to something like attraction, as Roland pursues his case….cases, plural.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
This is a hard thing to say, but I’m a tad disappointed that one of my favourite filmmakers, Neil LaBute, has got tangled up with an adaptation of a novel – however Booker prize winning it was in 1990 – which is not really suitable for adaptation. Familiar old mistake. Great book, intelligent subject, gives you goose bumps as you read it, multi layered and full of vivid characters, subtle emotional twangs, rustic settings on the Yorkshire coast….the lot. Only a handful of such books have crossed the adaptation divide to cinematic success (Rebecca being perhaps the most haunting). And I don’t mean to dismiss the film, because LaBute’s skills are admirable in many ways, not the least in his brilliant use of the simple camera pan to move us from today to the Victorian past. Unlike many filmmakers, he has chosen not to differentiate the two time periods by colouring devices or nostalgia tones. This is perfect for a story setting in England, some of which is credibly the same, including the British Museum, certain old abbeys and priories, railways stations and so on. This device is supremely effective and in fact the time shift edits are pure magic. The cast are certainly engaging, and the necessary chemistry between the two sets of lovers – one ion the past and one in the present – is credible. The thematic issues, however, lose focus; period films are always subject to being out of moral as well as physical and stylistic context for us, up on the screen. In a book, that’s different. I suppose that’s the bottom line: for us in today’s world that’s stripped of nuance, stripped of complexity and moral conformity in social terms (since when has living together been called ‘living in sin’ for example), the heart wrenching issues of Victorian England’s poets seem overstated, out of proportion and therefore trivial. Shame; I’d prefer to kneel before Neil.
Review by Louise Keller:
The credentials alone of Possession are worthy of note. First of all, there’s Neil LaBute, and anyone who has seen any of his films will agree, here is a filmmaker whose name is enough to entice them along. Will his new film make us squirm, like we did In the Company of Men, or delight us with the quirky, black ire of fabulous Nurse Betty? Secondly, there’s the cast – a sterling assembly with complex ice-goddess Gwyneth Paltrow, LaBute favourite (and mine) Aaron Eckhardt and debonair Jeremy Northam who cut his teeth on historic romance roles. It doesn’t hurt either that the source material won the Booker Prize for fiction. Plus, there’s the cinematic flair of Jean Yves Escoffier, the exquisite production designs of Luciana Arrighi, the mellow, thoughtful and haunting music of Gabriel Yared and Laura Jones also had a hand (or a pen) in the script. While Possession delivers and engages as a romance that transcends through time, it does not quite meet the expectation that its glory-box of talent would suggest. But that’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable 100 minutes. Indeed it is, and we are whisked into two different world and time frames. The way these worlds mesh and lead into each other works extremely well with the camera panning across the screen from one time frame to the other, revealing both sets of lovers in the same location. The mood is romantic (in the true sense) and we dip effortless in and out of the past. The film’s haunting flavour is retained long after the credits have rolled, as moments can be recalled and savoured. The performances are enjoyable – I especially enjoyed the pull-me push-me relationship between the Paltrow/Eckhart characters, and we genuinely care about them. Northam is suitably restrained and gentlemanly and there are moments of genuine revelation as the two poets meet and indulge in their affair to remember. The settings and locations are gorgeous, while Yared’s score captures the intensity of the story, but like its characters, retains a muted, understated feel. Whether or not such a novel can be done justice to on the screen could be one of the reasons why the film doesn’t totally satisfy, but I also acknowledge my preference for LaBute’s edgier and more distinctive works. Possession is a journey of discovery, obsession and passion – and while the sum of the parts may be more enjoyable than the whole, it is a gentle tale that discloses its secrets as leisurely as its story is told.
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Other Neil LaBute films:
IN THE COMPANY OF MEN
CAST: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headley, Holly Aird, Toby Stephens, Tom Hollander
PRODUCER: Paula Weinstein, Neil LaBute
DIRECTOR: Neil LaBute
SCRIPT: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil LaBute (novel by A.S. Byatt)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jean Yves Escoffier
EDITOR: Claire Simpson
MUSIC: Gabriell yared
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Luciana Arrighi
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 5, 2002