A preamble about the source material of the film: This is such a fantastic book, I have been eagerly awaiting this film. Of my three companions, only one knew how much I had been sucked into the novel, and none of them had read it. There are changes, big changes, of course, any dense novel needs to have some concepts simplified, smoothed; some of these I can defend artistically in adaptation, and some of them bumped this movie from Full Price to Matinee & Snacks. However, the casting is perfect, and while they lose some of the tone of the novel (by necessity) they remain true to the spirit of the story. My companions who had not read it immediately wanted to borrow or buy a copy and read it, and they all enjoyed it very much, despite my petty complaints of the “wrong” changes. But I was crying at the end like anyone.
Neil LaBute (famed for his harsh dramas In The Company of Men and Your Friends And Neighbors) sweetly directs this self-proclaimed Romance. Screenwriter David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) takes broad artistic liberties with the story, sometimes past the reasonable expectations of adaptation, but keeps the themes intact. The story is an interweaving of current-day literary scholars (Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow) who each have devoted their lives of study to two Victorian poets, respectively the fictional Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. One thing leads to another, in 2000 and 1859, and the scholars are investigating a relationship no one knew existed while we watch the relationship unfold.
Both the Victorian and Millenial pairs of hearts are opened by intellectual curiosity and finding connection in the mind, but we must not forget, the story is about poetry. Thankfully, it’s not a chilly, Saganesque deconstruction of intimacy through mutual mental felicity, but a warm embrace of connection and, well, possession. It’s a lovely idea but the film, by necessity, must skim over most of the joy of Maud and Roland’s discoveries. Although many of the clues that drive our star-crossed scholars are derived from their overly intimate knowledge of their respective subjects’ poetry, the film judiciously only uses what poetry is necessary to provide the clues and the tone of the works. Unlike the non-germane endless songs and elvish chants in Lord of the Rings, the poems of Possession inform the characters and pull readers through the mystery.
It is our fortune to know the chameleonic actor Aaron Eckhart from all of Neil LaBute’s films, and Erin Brockovich. As Roland, he has so many layers, and so completely inhabits his character we cannot imagine anyone else playing the part when it is done, even if we never noticed him before. Gwyneth Paltrow is beyond perfect as Maud, though this adaptation robs her of the time to show Maud Bailey’s complete transformation. Equally lovely are the rumpled Jeremy Northam and the self-contained Jennifer Ehle (she was Elizabeth in the A&E/BBC Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth).
The film is about intimacy, but it’s about the sorts of intimacy you normally don’t see in film: intellectual, philosophical, poetical, emotional, even marital intimacy. It’s also about secrets and knowing and wanting to Know, the reckless pursuit of Knowledge of all kinds as well: academic, sexual, romantic, a mystery of the past, a mystery of one’s own life failures, and knowledge of another person’s inner workings. I was fascinated, reading this book, by these modern people subjugating all else in their life to know every minutia of a long-dead person’s life, when we can never really truly perceive a life across the dusty shelves of history. Under such subjugation, they know nothing else but their elusive targets. I am delighted still by the layers only hinted at in the film. To possess the subject of your study, to be possessed by the demons of love or curiosity, to possess a secret or to possess an artifact, even its meaning as heritage comes into play in this film.
The novel speaks: “There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of…” but the knowledge of them is all the record that remains. It’s lovely, go see it.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 8/16/02
Time in minutes 103
Director Neil Labute