Unpleasant exercise not so entertaining

`Possession' director shows off too much

August 30, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Possession is not so much a movie as an exercise, a chance for some fine actors to get their hands on an old-fashioned (though far too pretentious) love story and for a director to show the world how multi-faceted he really is.

And like most exercises, undertaking this one may teach you something, but don't expect much in the way of pleasure.

In adapting A.S. Byatt's novel of parallel lovers in the 19th and 20th centuries, director Neil LaBute clearly wants to show audiences he's more than the edge-pushing cynic he seemed in his first two films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, and to a lesser degree in his third, Nurse Betty (the first to suggest there was a genuine sense of humor, and perhaps a little warmth, underneath that bitter facade).

But there's a clear lack of passion here, both between the director and his material and, more fatally, between the disparate lovers at the film's center. Too many people seem to be along just for the ride.

Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart, a LaBute perennial) is a blossoming expert in Victorian poetry, a research assistant to a British scholar studying the poems of Randolph Henry Ash. Tired of playing second banana, he yearns to stake an intellectual claim of his own and thinks he may have done just that with the discovery of a pair of unsent love letters stashed inside one of Ash's books preserved at the British museum.

After casually pilfering them (the cavalier attitude the film displays about such thievery is among the film's most grating sins), he secretly sets to work discovering who they were meant for and what they mean. If, as he suspects, they are love letters meant for someone other than Ash's wife, they could prove Mitchell's ticket to the big time. Ash is reputed to have been a faithful and devoted husband; at the very least, proving otherwise will make Mitchell a lightning rod for controversy among the literati.

A little surface research reveals a likely candidate for the letters' intended recipient: a poet by the name of Christabel LaMotte. She, also, could have her reputation shattered by Mitchell's discovery, since the only relationship she was ever known to have had was with her female companion.

So Mitchell enlists the aid of the world's foremost LaMotte scholar, a bitter, closed-off woman of man-hating reputation, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow).

Bailey starts off skeptical, but quickly warms to Mitchell's theory, as well as to Mitchell himself. As the two pursue their research, we see the attraction between them grow, even as both continually insist they're not interested. Throughout Possession, as the attraction between the two modern-day sleuths grows, we watch the parallel 19th-century relationship of Ash and LaMotte. Their love, too, seems doomed, although for reasons far more understandable than mule-headed stubbornness: Both already have longtime companions.

The script, written by LaBute, Laura Jones and David Henry Hwang, doesn't do anyone any favors either; both couples tend to speak in cliches, as though they have the starring roles in the best-darn high-school play ever. And too many key plot points are not developed but simply happen, as when obscure pieces of verse are suddenly recalled, providing Mitchell and Bailey with the clues necessary to continue their search.

It's unfortunate that none of the principal actors is able to convey the passion the characters are supposed to have for each other. As Ash and LaMotte, Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle fare best, if only because they look their parts. Northam, especially, manages to look properly tortured as Ash; Ehle, so marvelous in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is asked to do little more than smile beatifically. Still, she is able to imbue those smiles with undertones both tempestuous and erotic; Possession almost comes to life when these two are onscreen.

But the movie keeps jumping back to the future, and there it simply flails away.

Eckhart, who somehow manages to maintain a two-day stubble throughout the course of the film, seems more frat boy than English scholar; it's hard to believe he wouldn't abandon this literary quest at the first sight of a well-stocked pub. And Paltrow, her hair pulled back in the tightest of all possible buns, is in full ice-princess mode, bordering on caricature. If she's a scholar of romantic literature, she's clearly forgotten the romantic part.

Possession

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart

Directed and co-written by Neil Labute

Released by Focus Pictures

Rated PG-13 (adult themes, sensuality)

Time 104 minutes

Sun score: **

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