- The Washington Times - Friday, August 16, 2002

The arrival of Neil LaBute's surprisingly deft and faithful distillation of A.S. Byatt's "Possession" proves both a gratifying and an incongruous pleasure. Miss Byatt's "Angels and Insects" led to an intriguing movie about Victorian passion and disillusion in 1995. Now her most famous novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1990 and alludes to both overpowering passion and the custody of rare documents, has survived an extended process of movie development without significant structural or emotional harm. If anything, Mr. LaBute's fleet and evocative adaptation may attract a fresh generation of admirers to a richly rewarding book.
Miss Byatt's familiarity with the Victorians gave "Possession" an awesomely erudite dimension that the movie never tries to duplicate. Her virtuoso simulations of poems, letters and journals invented to document the hidden lives of two eminently high-minded writers, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte discovered to have been lovers during a whirlwind meeting of the minds in 1859 that led to a week of intimacy in Yorkshire do not lend themselves to movie reproduction. The book's elevated literacy is adequately confined to timely readings from the love letters of Ash and LaMotte both of whom, of course, are the creations of Miss Byatt.
These missives are rescued from more than a century of concealment by a pair of scholars, Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud Bailey, who supervises a women's studies program in Lincoln, and Aaron Eckhart as Roland Michell, an American working as a researcher for a group of Ash specialists at the British Museum.
The thrill of the hunt begins early, when Roland discovers an unfinished draft of an Ash letter to an unknown woman in one of the neglected volumes from the author's private library. Preliminary sleuthing leads to Christabel LaMotte as a probable recipient. Ash was the more prominent Victorian poet of the two; Miss Byatt equates him with Robert Browning or Alfred, Lord Tennyson so impressively, in fact, that it's difficult to resist the fiction that Ash actually existed.
A fabulist and lyric poet, LaMotte has been championed in the movie's present by feminist scholars. However, they have overlooked a major telltale influence in Ash. Maud Bailey has custody of the LaMotte archive. Moreover, she is a descendant of the poet. An elderly uncle and aunt still live at the crumbling country estate where LaMotte spent the last half of an apparently spinster life. Many of her effects remain in a shuttered upstairs wing of the house.
Maud and Roland hit the jackpot while spending a few days as guests of her relatives. The confirmation of the Ash-LaMotte connection also draws them closer as scholarly conspirators and then potential lovers.
Mr. LaBute contrives to shift gracefully between the emerging love match in the present and the clandestine love match in the past. Part of the effectiveness derives from making a minimum of fuss about the transitions. As a rule, we're here and then there in a flash. The Victorian episodes, reinforced by the presence of Jeremy Northam as Ash and Jennifer Ehle as a distinctively smoldering and spellbinding LaMotte, also give the audience a certain advantage over Maud and Roland by confirming leads and suppositions promptly.
Mr. LaBute doesn't expect us to entertain doubts about the Victorian affair. For movie purposes, it is verified and savored. The modern characters need to resolve uncertainties about their favorite authors and their own romantic attraction. The period flashbacks also are sumptuously mounted. Costume designer Jenny Beavan gowns Jennifer Ehle so cleverly that her eventual disrobing during the stolen nights with Ash acquires an extraordinary sensual impact.
The contrasts between the two love stories gave the book a singular romantic allure. However, the author re-created the minds and emotions of the Victorians so generously that the contemporary lovers ended up looking shortchanged in the closing chapters.
That imbalance disappears in the film, which demonstrates that parity may be easier to achieve with actors substituting for words. Mr. LaBute and his screenwriting collaborator, Laura Jones, invent some grace notes of their own, eloquently tentative love scenes between Maud and Roland. Arguably, the film overcompensates with the Americanization of Roland, who may strike some as brash and rumpled to a fault. Nevertheless, Mr. Eckhart is infectiously likable from the outset.
The movie has its bumpy stretches. A grave-robbing fiasco that Miss Byatt turned into a spectacular comic set piece looks merely outrageous and botched on film. Mr. LaBute also sets up certain payoffs without delivering. The most conspicuous example: LaMotte mentions her intention to scatter the fragments of a love poem from the train when she and Ash return from their rendezvous. We really need to see that gesture. In a similar respect, a document needs to get blown to the winds in the last sequence but remains pictorially inert.
Most of the shortcomings are outclassed by intelligent and stirring attributes. The movie as a whole certainly outclasses its immediate cinematic surroundings.


***1/2
TITLE: "Possession"
RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity, sexual candor and morbid plot elements)
CREDITS: Directed by Neil LaBute. Screenplay by David Hwang, Laura Jones and Mr. LaBute, based on the novel by A.S. Byatt.
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes


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