Reviewed 2003-02-17: I don't believe the artist's life matters apart from his or her art: we know nothing of Homer, yet his Iliad and Odyssey are no less enjoyable for that ignorance. But, like most people, I love a saucy tale attached to somebody justly famous — as distinguished from those who are famous just for being famous; I prefer those who earn their fame through a valued contribution to the arts, etc. — and that is why I enjoyed Possession. The story, based on the A.S. Byatt novel and scripted by David Henry Hwang and director Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty, 2000), slips easily between the Victorian era and what we immodestly call the modern era. Briefly, a pair of academic types stumble on evidence of a secret love affair between a poet noted for his fidelity and another poet whose significant other is her lesbian lover.
When American research assistant Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) stumbles upon a draft of a letter by English poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) addressed to poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle — pronounced EE-lee, by the way), he enlists the aid of women's lit professor, and veteran ballbuster, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), the English academic expert on the latter, to root out the truth of this reputation-shattering discovery. They race against competing professors who are after the same kind of iconoclastic career enhancement. Told simultaneously as a detective story and a love story, with lovers connecting in two centuries, the parallel action in the parallel lives is becoming and endearing. Sometimes the transition from one story, and one century, to another is as simple as panning the camera in a different direction, as if each era possessed the other. There are secrets discovered, suspenseful moments of anticipation, and one surprise after another, keeping the viewer absorbed to the end.
If you love Victorian times and literature, Possession will not disappoint you. And even if the Victorian era leaves you cold — it was the height of British imperialism, arrogance and prudery, after all, even if that nation of shopkeepers brought literature of enduring brilliance (Dickens!) to the world — the character interactions, both then and now, are timeless and excellently played. Paltrow's flawless English accent serves her character well, though some may quibble that there are plenty of English actresses with as much talent as the 30-year-old LA-born Oscar winner. The others are just as deft in their roles: Cambridge-born Northam is a passionate poet (I forgive him for Gosford Park); North Carolina-born Ehle displays barely bridled sensuality as Christabel, the object of Ash's affection; Yorkshire-born Lena Heady is compelling as the (former) object of Christabel's affection, Blanche Glover. The only weak link was Aaron Eckhart, who seemed superficial — or perhaps too handsome, too much like a surfer — to be believable as a research assistant (I last saw him in Erin Brockovich, 2000).
I liked Possession more than I expected to. Maybe I was expecting long passages of lush, Victorian prose. Instead, I was caught up in an imaginative story told through believable characters. Even the language changed with the time period, and that takes skill as a writer. And it is in great writing that every great film starts.
Agree? Disagree? Tell me!