Director Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty) seems the unlikeliest candidate to direct the film version of British author A.S. Byatt's Booker Award-winning best seller Possession. (OK, that's an exaggeration: There's always Michael Bay.) LaBute's earlier films were resolutely tied to American culture, and Byatt's book couldn't be more British if it drank tea at 4 and flew the Union Jack.
One of the movie's departures is to change the lead male character, Roland Michell, from a Brit to an American, perhaps to draw in domestic audiences (a lame reason), perhaps to accommodate the casting of LaBute favorite Aaron Eckhart (not much better). Roland, a scruffy researcher, works for Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey), an expert in the life of fictional 19th-century romantic Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), a former poet laureate famed for his expressions of devotion to his wife. One day in the London Library, examining Ash's own copy of a book, Roland discovers what appears to be a love letter from Ash to a woman not his wife. It doesn't take a genius to recognize this as a potentially earthshaking find, the sort that can set up an academic for life.
When his boss is too dismissive to even listen to Roland's tale, the young man takes it upon himself to follow up. On a lead from his caddish associate Fergus Wolff (Toby Stephens), he contacts Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), an expert in the life of Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a less renowned poet who is Roland's best candidate for the mystery lover.
At first, it all seems rather unlikely to Maud, given that Christabel, who just happens to be her great-great-great-aunt, had only one known romance, and that was with another woman. Nor is the somewhat formal, frosty Maud exactly wild about the intrusion of this presumptuous American. But soon the pair uncover yet more lost documents that lend credence to Roland's idea. They begin to visit the locales of this 140-year-old love affair.
Of course, it doesn't take a genius to predict that Roland and Maud are going to end up falling under the spell of Ash and LaMotte's epic passion and, in some seemingly less-grand modern way, relive it.
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An American like LaBute taking on such a project may seem no stranger than, say, Taiwanese Ang Lee directing Sense and Sensibility. But with imagination, one can understand why Lee ended up making the best Jane Austen film adaptation of the '90s: His upbringing in a highly ritualized, stratified society, which had provided the thematic roots of his earlier films, gave him a better feel for Austen's period than any British director his age, raised in a vastly different, modern culture, could have had.
Sadly, LaBute doesn't bring any equivalent advantage to Possession. In fact, his temperament seems largely inappropriate: The book is a romance, a story of grand passion, and LaBute is, to put it mildly, not the warmest of directors. Nor does he entirely solve the many narrative problems the book presents for a film adaptation. In the book, the 19th-century story unfolds through documents--letters, poems and diaries--found by the two contemporary characters. Not surprisingly, these episodes are presented onscreen, intercut with the modern story, so we get the two love stories presented visually in counterpoint. Even so, the olden events lean heavily on voiceover readings of the texts: We are generally not so much in the scene as at a distance, watching it.
The story may be a direct descendant of Henry James' The Aspern Papers and its 1947 Hollywood film version, The Lost Moment, but the film that is likelier to come to mind is Karel Reisz's 1981 version of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, which likewise intercuts past and present. Curiously, the intercutting in that film developed in reverse, adding modern scenes to Fowles' period piece in an attempt to re-create the book's ironic voice. It may sound more unnatural than what LaBute does, but it ends up being more effective.
Likewise, the thoughts and inner lives of the modern protagonists go almost altogether untranslated to the screen. Roland and Maud keep making elliptical references to their pasts that are never fleshed out or made clear. The cold distance that LaBute brings to the material keeps the viewer at arm's length. The story contains a series of plot revelations, each of which should move us, some of them profoundly; yet they feel so evenly weighted, so much like similar puzzle pieces dropping into place at regular intervals, that they have no impact. All that is left of the emotional content are a few scenes of romantic/sexual passion, only one of which could be said to achieve anything close to a grand level. It's too little, too late; and one can only wonder what someone like, say, Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply, The English Patient) could have done with the project.