A review of “Possession” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: PG-13 for language, some nudity

Run Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

 

 

Director Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men”, “Nurse Betty”) sidesteps his well-developed dark side and embraces romantic mystery with accomplished aplomb.  Reciprocated romance has never felt so arch, or so uncontrollably delicious. 

“A” for the effort behind this complicated adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning 1990 novel of the same name.  LaBute muse Aaron Eckhart plays the ultimate fish-out-of-water, a rogue American literary scholar (Roland Michell) surrounded by snotty English academics.  With genuine Yankee perseverance, Michell doggedly pursues an unsubstantiated theory involving his fellowship subject, Randolph Henry Ash, legendary poet laureate to Queen Victoria.

Michell’s industrious search leads him to the doorstep of brilliant and staid English scholar Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a descendant of Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte and a tireless researcher of her ancestor’s life and work.  Michell claims that Ash and LaMotte (played in glorious repetitive flashback by Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) were lovers, a conjecture that meets with raised eyebrows and classic English disdain. When Michell and Bailey discover a hidden cache of fervent love letters, their speculative notion is blown wide open.

Were this simply a movie mystery, it would be a satisfying cinematic treat.  But the narrative-weaving literary quest is layered with passion so ripe it nearly erupts.  Ash and LaMotte smolder under a spell of physical chemistry that exudes illicit sensuality.  The heat of their written words (“I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you”) is equally palpable. Northam’s burgeoning attraction to his lady love is a barely controlled tempest of emotion, and Ehle astonishes as a volatile artist torn between two lovers. The heady combination of the intellectual and the physical is a potent plot influence.

The weak link lies within the contemporary parallel romance of Michell and Bailey. Eckhart (hot hot hot) steams up the screen with sinfully masculine spirit, but Paltrow’s stodgy ice princess kills the modern-day mood before she thaws, at long last.

Delectable romantic escapism is good for the soul. Kudos to LaBute for setting off on an improbable journey of excessive sentimentality.  The tang of jealousy and obsession overshadows small, shallow plot contrivances.

“No mere human can stand near a fire and not be consumed”.  Yes indeed.