Possession

***1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

A literary detective story is still a detective story and aficionados of the whodunit won't be disappointed. It's not about death this time, but love. Did they do it? If so, where and how?

They are Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), poet laureate in the late 19th century, and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a reputed lesbian from a good family. He is married to the loyal, but frustrated Ellen (Holly Aird) - there has been no physical activity in the marital bed for years, if at all. He fits the description of a Romantic Poet perfectly, wandering dazed by nature and inactivity through sun-dappled fields, his sad eyes melting before the passionate couplets forming in the wellspring of his engorged imagination.

She is independent of mind, a stronger character by far, intellectually stimulated by argument and debate, interested in artistic expression as a language of the soul. Her infatuation with Randolph has no future ("How can we bear it? Every day we shall have less"), only a present that burns like bracken at summer's fall. If feelings let angels loose from heaven ("Was the love we found worth the tempest?"), the demons of public morality await them. Christabel has courage, while Randolph has floppy hair.

Intercut with this illicit tryst is the story of Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), an unconventional research fellow from an American university, working for an Irish professor of English (Tom Hickey) in the late 1970s, who discovers a handwritten letter within the pages of a volume of Ash's poems at the London Library - why no one else found it in 80 years remains a mystery - that suggests a love affair between the revered poet and the forgotten Christabel LaMotte, which, to the literary world, would be the equivalent of discovering that William Wordsworth wrote erotic verse to Coleridge's niece.

In his search for the truth of Ash's sex life, Michell is helped by a distant relative of Christabel's, Dr Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a repressed academic, who is going out with one of his more devious colleagues (Toby Stephens). Their relationship might have, but doesn't, mirror that of the Victorians.

Neil LaBute's adaptation of A S Byatt's Booker prize winning novel shuffles ancient and modern better than Karel Reisz in The French Lieutenant's Woman, possibly because it is intrinsic to the plot, while Harold Pinter's script imposed a contemporary parallel universe onto John Fowles's tale of forbidden passion.

Surprisingly for an American writer/director, known for acerbic, misogynistic, cynical films (In The Company Of Men, Your Friends And Neighbours), the 19th century scenes are infinitely more rewarding. The performances of Northam, Ehle and Lena Headey, as Christabel's lover, are deeply felt, while Paltrow is miscast - she can't do intellectual - and Eckhart's designer stubble begins to become an issue - why is it always the same length? Doesn't he shave? Ever? Don't hairs grow? Even on the dead?

A note in passing: skinny dipping in a Yorkshire stream in Autumn would freeze anyone's ardour and daft old baronets don't stick 12-bores in the faces of strangers and gasp, "Get off my land!" That only happens in Enid Blyton.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2002
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Possession packshot
An academic and a descendant of a poet find love is on the cards as they investigate a romance from the past.
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Director: Neil LaBute

Writer: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil LaBute, based on the novel by A S Byatt

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey, Holly Aird, Toby Stephens, Trevor Eve, Tom Hickey, Graham Crowden, Anna Massey

Year: 2002

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US

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If you like this, try:

Dead Again
The Hours