I had to break in a new movie theatre this weekend. Possession played in Baton Rouge but only for one week so I was forced to head off to the suburbs of New Orleans where there's a huge new 20 screen multiplex. It was date night and the average age of the movie-goers for 19 of the 20 screens was about 18. But when I got to the 20th screen, where Possession was playing, I noticed that I seemed to be the youngest person there. It was still date night but average age of the couples was about 60. I don't understand why were all the 18 year-olds going to see Swimfan and XXX rather than a film about poetry and PhD's falling in love in the stacks at the British Library! The plot is a literary detective story wound around two romances, one modern and one Victorian. The story begins with the discovery of letters by a famous victorian poet to an unknown woman. The discoverer of the letters, Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart in the movie), is researching the poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). He suspects that the mystery woman is Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) another Victorian Poet. He contacts Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) an expert on LaMotte and they join forces to try and discover the true story of the two Victorian poets. The two stories are told in parallel as the modern couple discovers letters and diaries that shed light on the Victorian couple. Meanwhile, several other academics get wind of the discovery and try and beat Roland and Maud to the punch. This part of the plot which is in both book and movie versions portrays an Indiana-Jones-esque atmosphere to english literature research that is a little over the top.
It is hard to imagine making this book into a movie. I just finished reading Possession, the Booker Prize winning book by A. S. Byatt. It is an amazing book. I couldn't put it down. Of course, it is always hard for a movie to live up to a good book. In this case, it's harder than usual, since much of the ``action" in the book is in letters, poems and diary entries. The director, Neil LaBute, makes the obvious choice and cuts away most of this literary material. Only a small fraction of it is read onscreen. This cutting doesn't hurt the modern relationship between Maud and Roland. But it more or less destroys any understanding of what lures Ash and LaMotte, both of whom have been leading quiet domestic lives, into an incendiary and destructive affair. They live their lives on words and it is their own words in letters to each other words that seduce them. Also, it's not clear why LaBute picked this book to make into a film or that he is the best choice of director. His previous films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, both also starring Aaron Eckhart, present quite cynical and misogynistic views of romance. LaBute does do a good job of cutting between the stories in 1859 and the present, but he doesn't do well portraying the excitement of the race to discover the story of the Ash and LaMotte as Roland and Maud find their love letters and try to keep the evil Cropper (Trevor Eve) from getting ahold of them. LaBute does a better job with the relationship between Maud and Roland, although I liked their relationship better in the book where they slowly fall in love despite themselves. In the movie, it all progresses a bit faster.
The casting is mostly perfect.
In particular, Gwyneth Paltrow was born to play Maud. The part could have
been written with her in mind. Similarly, Northam was born to play Ash.
Eckhart is a very good choice for Roland and making him American doesn't
take away from the story except for all the stupid comments inserted into
the script about him being American. On the whole, Possession
is a very good attempt at bringing this book to the screen. And like
the movie version of Lord of the Rings, most of my quibbles stem from the
fact that I loved the book. I think the movie was quite enjoyable
and if you haven't read the book, you may enjoy it more. But read
the book! Of course, a story about PhD's falling in the love while
they do research may not be as fascinating to you as it is to me.