directed by Neil LaBute
with Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, and Jennifer Ehle
opens Aug. 16 at Guild 45, Pacific Place, and others
Whatever the merits of A.S. Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize-winning novel Possession (which I never got around to reading, perhaps deterred by the gooey subtitle "a romance"), director Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men) would seem an odd choice for the adaptation. Odder still, despite his acidic reputation, Possession the movie turns out to be a high-toned Harlequin romance for the Merchant-Ivory set, a lavender-scented soap commercial.
Suitably square-jawed and tousled Aaron Eckhart plays Roland, a junior academic in London who's brash and impetuous, you see, because he's American. Opposite him is the established, porcelain-skinned professor Maud (Gwyneth Paltrow), who's prim and repressed, of course, because she's British. (God help us but she literally needs to let her hair down!)
Can you see where this is going? Our will-they-or-won't-they lovers meet cute while Roland pursues a possible career-making connection between two (fictitious) Victorian-era writers: Christabel LaMotte (Sunshine's leonine Jennifer Ehle) and Randolph Ash (Gosford Park's ardent Jeremy Northam). Possession cuts between scenes of these two couples in their respective centuries, as one affair supposedly illuminates another.
"Literary sleuths" is an expression I detest, yet it precisely captures Possession's precious, Nancy Drew-like tone. As Roland boldly swipes manuscripts and timid Maud connects her own family history to Christabel's, the two mismatched scholars reluctantly fall into a kind of J. Crew- catalog romance. Roland wears a fabulous green corduroy jacket, while Maud is the sort of smart, Saab-driving, scarf-and-Wellies Englishwoman whom Prince Charles should've married instead of pea-brained Di. (Meanwhile, Ehle and Northam get to have the actual, displaced sex, which finally takes place before a raging hearth—in case you missed the whole flames-of-passion idea.)
Possession is the sort of movie in which everyone, in either century, can quote Yeats by heart, but to strikingly little effect. In the present-day episodes, there are gloomy old Gothic mansions, clues contained in lines of poetry, a trip to exotic Yorkshire (!), and a trip to even more exotic France (!!!), all of which could only be exciting to English ladies who snack on cucumber sandwiches and collect china. While structurally similar to Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, Possession plays like the Cliffs Notes version of a novel no one actually needs to read.
On the positive side, however, maybe Possession will send a whole new impressionable wave of Gen-Y kids into Ph.D. programs in English. They'd be the best-dressed, best-looking jobless academics in history.