One of the most densely literary popular novels of recent times, A.S. Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize winner “Possession” defies comprehensive cinematic adaptation. The book’s most distinguishing quality, its wizardry with words and form, remains untranslatable, leaving the filmmakers with the lesser but still formidable task of dealing with the source’s surfaces, characters and plot. Even on these drastically reduced terms, Neil LaBute has had middling success at best, having come up with a passably engaging time-jumping romantic melodrama that at least grapples seriously with one of the novel’s most potent themes. Attractive cast and tony pedigree bestowed by Byatt and LaBute assure interest from highbrow auds, with hope for a wider public hinging on some upbeat reviews and strong marketing from new Focus Features, which inherited the production from USA Films.
Viewers with 21-year memories will likely compare “Possession” to “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” both for its dual Victorian era/modern-day setting and for the extraordinary resemblance of Jennifer Ehle, who plays the tragic heroine of the new picture, to Meryl Streep, the earlier film’s star. And much as Karel Reisz and Harold Pinter made some clever decisions while never truly cracking the essential unadaptability of John Fowles’ novel, so do LaBute & Co. show a few smarts while attempting a similarly Sisyphean task.
Many readers have had trouble making it past the first three or four chapters of Byatt’s 550-page novel, so thick are they with the crust and dust of British academia. But those who did were rewarded with an astounding display of literary erudition and dexterity, expressed by long passages of “original” 19th century poetry and correspondence, as well as by genuinely involving characters and hilariously knowing commentary on competitive shenanigans, sheep-like thinking and political correctness within the scholarly community.
But whereas the book burrows into the deeply creased gray matter and heavily fortified hearts of its almost outrageously rarified characters, the film tries to make itself more accessible by streamlining the action, cranking up the principals’ attractiveness quotient by several notches from what the printed page would suggest and changing the modern male lead from a cautious, emotionally pinched Brit to a brash, impulsive Yank.
That American is Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), a research assistant at the British Museum possessed of a lifelong obsession with Randolph Henry Ash, the (fictitious) poet laureate to Queen Victoria. Discovering a draft of a “racy” letter from Ash to a lesser-known fellow poet, Christabel LaMotte, Roland steals the missive in the hope of making his name on the basis of revelations that Ash, a legendarily faithful husband, may have been romantically involved with LaMotte.
But Roland needs help and finds it in Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a gender studies academic who is researching a biography of LaMotte and happens to be the poet’s niece, thrice removed. Her blond beauty chilled by a rigid intellectualism, Bailey is a feminist with a professional interest in advancing the view that LaMotte was an exclusive lesbian engaged in a long-term relationship with her housemate Blanche (Byatt took particular delight in sending up this sort of proprietary, agenda-driven scholarship).
Uneasy but intrigued, Maud agrees to take Roland to LaMotte’s childhood home and to visit her relations, Sir George and Lady Bailey. In the latter’s dilapidated mansion, the young academics discover gold — an unknown cache of letters between Ash and LaMotte they quickly recognize will forever alter the perception of the great Ash, just as it illuminates LaMotte’s life.
So while the haggling commences over who properly “owns” the correspondence, Maud and Roland head into Yorkshire, where the poets had a month-long tryst some 125 years before. They are even able to stay in the same room in the very same inn where Ash and LaMotte consummated their love and spent their only private time together, and as the two romances are dramatized, the earlier one in flashback according to the revelations of the letters, LaBute gets to the core ideas that give the film a raison d’etre beyond the recapitulation of Victorian-era mores and pretty pictures.
Due to the prevailing societal constraints, Ash (Jeremy Northam) and LaMotte (Ehle) risked everything by making physical the profoundly romantic love that developed through their correspondence; Ash had his reputation and his wife to consider, while LaMotte was burdened by guilt over the betrayal of her dependent companion Blanche (Lena Headey) and by the certainty that nothing would be the same afterward.
By contrast, Roland and Maud have nothing but their all-too-modern neuroses and hang-ups standing in their way. Their joint voyage of excited discovery sweeps them along in an obvious direction, but it all goes wrong when they indulge the inevitable temptation to re-enact the Ash-LaMotte love story in the same location. Both let their heads rule their hearts to an alarming degree, and appear hamstrung by inhibitions; perhaps vicarious love is all they’re capable of. Putting a quick end to their romantic charade, they agree they’ve gotten “off the track.”
Pic’s parallel structure, sometimes facilitated by lovely pans that shift the action from one period to another within the same shot, proceeds in the second half to illustrate the sorry aftermath of the Ash-LaMotte affair while it documents the almost farcical competition of contemporary scholars to lay claim to the poets’ letters and solve the unanswered questions of their fates. Latter effort involves a trip to France for Roland and Maud, which allows them a chance to reconsider their relationship just as it leads to profound revelations for Maud.
Concisely told in well under two hours, this highly abridged version of a complicated and minutely observed story becomes mildly absorbing but never dramatically compelling. LaBute and co-scenarists David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones have found legitimate ways of conveying some of the book’s concerns, even if some dialogue, especially Eckhart’s, comes off as coarse.
The picture is physically handsome, if something less than splendid, thanks to Jean Yves Escoffier’s lensing, Luciana Arrighi’s production design, Jenny Beavan’s costumes and excellent locations, and Gabriel Yared’s score bolsters the dramatic/romantic context. And while squirrelly academics will certainly get a kick at the thought of being portrayed by the likes of Paltrow and Eckhart (not to mention a few other lookers around the periphery), and the former remains convincingly at home with an English accent, neither impresses as the sort that has spent a lifetime burrowing into moldy texts.
Northam’s Ash lacks the outsized personality one might imagine for such an eminent character, but the actor brings an ardent spirit and considered tone to the role that put it over. The superb Ehle is the picture of 19th century English beauty as LaMotte, porcelain complexioned and rounder of face and body than the contemporary model, as well as sharp-eyed and well spoken. Headey compels sympathy as LaMotte’s needy, anguished lover, and other supporting perfs are well judged.