December 16, 2002 -- "Possession" is a clever and complex story of two love affairs some 100 years apart. It is both a detective story and a romance spiced with the intrigue of academic skullduggery and politics.
Based on the 1990 award-winning novel by A.S. Byatt, the film tells the story of two modern academic researchers on the trail of a hidden love affair between two writers in Victorian England. The American researcher, Roland Michell (played by Aaron Eckhart of "Erin Brockovich"), is in England studying the career of Randolph Henry Ash, poet laureate to Queen Victoria. He teams up with English academic Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is studying the career of poet Christabel LaMotte. At first, Bailey is reluctant to give credence to Michell's theory about the affair between LaMotte and Ash because LaMotte was known to have been in a lesbian relationship with an artist named Blanche Glover. However, the pair soon uncover evidence which supports Michell's theory. Other academic researchers get wind of the discovery and the race is on to collect evidence and publish the results.
Ash was thought to have been devoted to his wife, so proof of an extra-marital affair would be a major discovery. Bailey and Michell travel far and wide collecting clues and finding hidden letters, trying to uncover the truth. Other competing researchers are hot on the same trail. A parallel story unfolds during the film. Each time Bailey and Michell discover something, we see it acted out by Ash (played by Jeremy Northam of "Gosford Park" and "Enigma") and LaMotte (played by Jennifer Ehle of "Sunshine"). At the same time as the romace burns between Ash and LaMotte, a romance stirs between Bailey and Mitchell. The parallel stories become intertwined even more when Bailey and Mitchell visit some of the same places that Ash and LaMotte visited. The other part of the story is also interesting. It concerns some underhanded tricks used to gain advantage in the supposedly honorable field of academic research.
One of the interesting things about the parallel love stories is that the Victorian-era lovers are actually more daring about romance than their modern counterparts. Bailey and Mitchell are both afraid to commit to each other. They both have a fear of initmacy and don't want to be vulnerable. Ash and LaMotte have the same fears, but they willingly abandon themselves to passion despite the high emotional cost of their affair. In turn, Michell and Bailey learn something about passion from Ash and LaMotte. The story also highlights the literary nature of Ash and LaMotte's relationship. They fell in love through letters and poetry. The film celebrates poetry and elegant writing. The acting is excellent and the film's cinematography and production values are reminiscent of Merchant-Ivory films. This is obviously was a very difficult story to film, but writer-director Neil LaBute ("Nurse Betty"), along with screenwriters David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones do a fine job with it. This film rates a B+.
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