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Love among the index cards

Neil LaBute gets lost in Possession's literary mysteries

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Filmmaker Neil LaBute labors to lighten up in his latest movie, Possession. His first films, In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, kept entirely to the darkest corners of the human heart, while Nurse Betty, with its sunny but cynical treatment of denial and obsession, was a kind of a false dawn.
In Possession, LaBute grudgingly acknowledges that, yes, human relationships have some positive qualities. But LaBute's interest in male-female dynamics feel imposed on the literary mysteries of A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning novel.

Aaron Eckhart, LaBute's favorite actor, plays Roland Michel, an American scholar at the bottom of London's academic pecking order. While researching a bit of trivia, he happens upon a draft of a love note by the renowned Randolph Henry Ash, a classic Victorian poet patterned after Browning and Tennyson. Roland keeps his discovery to himself and, upon investigating, suspects that Ash may have addressed it to a respectable but lesser-known writer, Christabel LaMotte.

Roland enlists the aid of a LaMotte expert, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a frosty feminist professor who initially looks askance at both Roland's theories and his manners. But as she becomes increasingly excited by the possibility that she and Roland are on the heels of a landmark literary discovery, so do the two researchers become increasingly attracted to each other.

Possession gets all the physical details right for Roland and Maud's scholarly sleuthing: They sort through ancient libraries, darkened attics and sprawling storerooms, peering at moldering letters and moth-eaten journals. In flashbacks, we see Ash (Jeremy Northram) and LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) warily wooing each other.

Separated by more than 140 years, Maud and Roland follow Ash and LaMotte's paper trail from London to Yorkshire to France, often finding clues in the writers' poetry. Occasionally a puckish tracking shot will span the decades: In a mirror we'll see the present-day couple entering a historic hotel room, and then the perspective turns around and it's the Victorian lovers in the same room.

Byatt's novel is subtitled "A Romance," which she meant both as a love story and for its medieval meaning as a chivalrous adventure. The novel Possession at times takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to the modern story, which explains why the film gives such sinister names to its black-clad English Department antagonists, including greedy biographer Morton Cropper, haughty Professor Blackadder and snide Fergus Wolff, Maud's cad of a boyfriend. The deliberately melodramatic approach helps justify some of the plot's coincidences and outlandish twists, like the final confrontation in a moonlit cemetery, which in the film simply seems overwrought.

The script by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute takes Maud and Roland's relationship both more and less seriously. It wants to sincerely examine Maud's and Roland's fears of commitment, how the grand passions of Ash and LaMotte make the modern characters both more eager to give into emotions and more afraid of being burned. But Possession's insights prove consistently facile, like the way part of the story involves whether Maud will literally let her hair down.

For the first time, Paltrow's English accent sounds affected, like she's a young girl playing "tea party." And Eckhart tries to give Roland a brash, "American" charm that simply seems obnoxious.

At just over 100 minutes, Possession is surprisingly short, given it's heady, century-switching subject matter. The villains have surprisingly little screen time and various characters drop hints about matters that we've never heard of and never pay off, suggesting that the movie was severely truncated in the editing room. Perhaps a pair of ardent Neil LaBute scholars will one day piece together the "lost" Possession, but I doubt it would be very inspiring.

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