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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Possession

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart
Director: Neil LaBute
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 102 Minutes
Release Date: August 2002
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Trevor Eve, Toby Stephens, Anna Massey, Lena Headey

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

Here it is the year 2002. We've sent a man to moon, we've invited the computer, we've proven Jules Verne's prescience by a host of inventions from the submarine to heavier-than-air flying machines. But poor H.G. Wells! He must have figured that we could travel forward and backward in time by now, but no such luck. Ah but wait! We can indeed travel back in time and, not only by seeing movies that concentrate on historic periods. Take what you did last week. Did you ever think that your activities were pursued in pretty much the same manner a hundred years ago? Times change, but people don't; not basically. Each era and geographic location give people distinct cultural values, but basically we all seek love and companionship and in some cases literally travel across the same paths to discover these gifts.

If this sounds farfetched, take a look at the movie "Possession," an August release but anything but a summer pic. Looking like something that would have been released by Merchant and Ivory with scenes that can take the breath away in much the manner that one Victorian poet was so taken in his own time, Neil LaBute directs a film in line with his usual theme of sexual politics. Yet unlike his "In the Company of Men," a low-budgeter about two frustrated office workers who plot to mess up the emotions of a deaf, female co-worker; and the pungent "Your Friends & Neighbors," about two sexually dysfunctional couples; there is hardly a trace of cynicism this time around. "Possession" is a love story centered on two couples, one from the mid-19th century and the other from our own time in England, who travel romantic paths with each other in ways that are both remarkably similar and yet fixed by the cultural mores of their own, separate times.

The tale is anchored by Roland Mitchell (Neil LaBute-favorite Aaron Eckhart), an American scholar of Victorian poetry who goes to England on a fellowship to study the work of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (who comes to life in this fictional work by Jeremy Northam). Combing through books of poetry in a specialized library he serendipitously uncovers between the pages some original letters exchanged between Ash and one feminist poet of lesser stature, Christabel LaMotte (who comes to life as Jennifer Ehle). What to do? He surreptitiously pockets the epistles and is introduced to Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), an expert on the life and work of Ms. LaMotte who accepts the conventional notion that LaMotte never had children or male lovers. Conveniently enough, both Maud Bailey and Christabel LaMotte are feminists, suspicious of men and given to holding them at a distance, while for their part Randolph and Roland both have issues in their lives that prevent them from seizing the day, holding both back at first from professing their desire for the women they have grown to love.

As for the time travel, both the passionate couple of 1859 and their contemporary doubles, if you will, do some traveling around the staggeringly beautiful countryside. Each of the couples has bedded in a remote area to be undisturbed by others who would seek to destroy their union. For example, Randolph's wife, Ellen Ash (Holly Aird), would not be pleased at all to discover her husband's straying from the marriage bed; nor would Fergus (Toby Stephens), Maud's boyfriend, take kindly to her new arrangement with an upstart American.

While A.S. Byatt's novel, which won the Booker prize in 1990, is updated to give a contemporary feel to the movie, photographer Jean Yves Escoffier shifts the camera from the present year to 1859 seamlessly, showing the remarkable ways that Roland and Maud, Randolph and Christabel, are mirror images though separated by almost a century and a half. Yet the screenplay by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and the director makes allowance for cultural differences, giving, I think, more accolades to the kinds of lives led by Victorians than those enjoyed by contemporary lovers. For all the stereotypes (such as the idea that Britons during the age of Queen Victoria draped the legs of pianos), the Victorians seem to lead a more emotional life. They didn't talk about sex endlessly as we do today and as reflected in magazines for both women and men, and by not intellectualizing their feelings but rather putting them into stirring poetry, they apparently kept their passions alive more than Americans today who treat a sexual encounter as casually as a trip to the local luncheonette for a Diet Pepsi.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Maud and Jennifer Ehle as her Victorian "double" Christabel, are both gorgeous; both play their characters as equally repressed despite the greater freedoms of our own day. Both are ultimately liberated, not through Christabel's lesbian alliance with Sabine (Elodie French) and not through Maud's with Fergus but only through meeting the people with whom they share a genuine love. In that regard handsome Aaron Eckhart, who seems to be competing with Tom Cruise for who can have the coolest two-day beard, is miscast the only negative of this satisfying film. Eckhart, made to order for LaBute's cynical oeuvre, is simply out of Paltrow's class. While we can understand Paltrow's character's distaste for the unctuous Fergus, we cannot see her as Eckhart's soul- mate. He's just too...what's the word?... American.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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