by DAVID KEYES
Freudian theories, as demonstrated in Neil LaBute's "Possession,"
have altered modern romance perhaps more dramatically than
society cares to imagine. No longer is the mere essence
of love the single most important thing about relationships
or commitments; people dictate their lives according to
fears and insecurities, pulling away when the chemistry
gets intense or the passion escalates beyond their expectations.
Lovers analyze and nitpick on minute details, emphasize
things that need not to be stressed, and look for excuses
not to completely devote themselves to romantic obligations.
No, love isn't the entire package anymore; it's a mere detail.
When you contrast that post-Freudian reality with that
of an earlier age, you begin to see just how far the scope
of relationships has gone topsy-turvy. In ways, that's the
immediate goal behind "Possession," a film about
two love stories set in seemingly opposite time frames,
and how the harsh realities around them can shape the directions
and outcomes of two people engaged in passion. Indeed, what
does it take for a kind of relationship to survive in any
kind of angst-ridden atmosphere? Where are the parallels
and differences drawn between the two? And will the results
of one always reflect the other? If you have answers to
those questions, unfortunately, then you're probably too
much of an optimist to even think of seeing the picture.
The movie is LaBute's fourth major screen venture, an interesting
and dramatic divergence from his previous material that,
despite being meticulously scripted and passionately directed,
somehow never quite reaches the enthusiastic thrust of his
previous efforts. The film being less character-driven and
more plot-dependent is our first clue to this misfortune;
in the past, LaBute's pictures have succeeded not because
they draw from marvelous and complex screenplays, but because
the players involved in the stories react to their situations
in extremely unconventional, but observant, ways. Consider
the audacity of the main characters of "In The Company
of Men" or the subtle tyranny that surfaces with those
in "Your Friends and Neighbors"; in such an atmosphere,
we don't care nearly as much about the chain of events as
much as we do about the participants. In "Possession,"
those kinds of traits take a back seat to storytelling,
and though that's not really a bad thing, it can be somewhat
distracting if you're looking for a character to convey
the slightest little quirk.
The picture opens with us meeting Roland Michell (Aaron
Eckhart), a young American scholar in London who is studying
the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) as
part of his fellowship under the direction of an English
college professor. During a visit to the London library,
he uncovers a stash of papers wedged in an old book about
the late romantic, all of which seem to be written by Ash
himself. Believing that this mysterious letter has gone
on unknown to historians up to now, he snatches the pages
and begins an investigation on them.
Careful studying of the writing leads Roland to conclude
that the letter was written to Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer
Ehle), a female poet of that time who, prior to the discovery,
was never thought to have a connection to Ash. He takes
his findings to an English academic named Maud Bailey (Gwyneth
Paltrow), a researcher of LaMotte's work who also happens
to be a family descendant. Maud considers Roland's theories
about the link between both poets bizarre and illogical,
but when they both investigate the possibility further,
they uncover much more than they ever thought possible.
Meanwhile, the movie flashes back to a century earlier
when both Ash and LaMotte were alive. He a married man and
she a bisexual in a relationship with another woman, they
meet by coincidence at the peak of their artistic success,
striking up an infatuation for one another that, in typical
form for romanticism, leads to a forbidden but passionate
love affair. Intimacy, sadly, tends to be followed by great
loss and suffering, and as Roland and Maude's quest in current
time reveals these details little by little, they get caught
up in the web of forbidden love themselves.
As a two-tiered love story creating parallels between the
past and the present, "Possession" is gifted with
complex and astounding writing. LaBute's script, co-written
by David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, allows two love stories
to unfold on top of each other without over-dramatizing
or applying too much stress, calculated so that even the
slight details can dramatically change the course of events.
Where it all fails, unfortunately, is with the movie's characters,
who don't have much gusto or charm outside their knowledge
of poetry. Aaron Eckhart, who has been in all of the director's
films now, has some minor fun with the Roland character
(especially when he's stealing things that he shouldn't),
but on the whole is nowhere near as memorable as he should
be. Paltrow, meanwhile, suffers a major blow by appearing
as one of the most boring LaBute characters ever created
for the screen, a woman who is so caught up in the post-Freudian
reality of romance that it's no wonder she's still a single.
No, this is not a bad film because the story's players lack
dimension or flair, but had the characterizations even came
close to matching the film's fabulous narrative structure,
then we could have been dealing with a real winner here.
As it stands, "Possession" is a very decent endeavor
that misses the mark of a truly fantastic LaBute work.