Caught in Emotional Traps
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron
Eckhart, Jeremy Northam,
Jennifer Ehle, and Lena Headey
Audience: Older teenagers and adults
Rating: PG -13
Runtime: 102 minutes
Distributor: USA Films
Director: Neil LaBute
Executive Producer: David Barron and Len Amato
Producer: Paula Weinstein and Barry
Writer: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones
and Neil LaBute
Address Comments To:Scott Greenstein, Chairman
100 North Crescent Drive, Garden Level
Beverly Hills, CA 90210
Phone: (310) 385-4000
Fax: (310) 385-4408
POSSESSION, an adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s novel by the same name, is a gorgeous movie. Shot in 11 weeks in England, including such locations as the British Museum, Bolton Abbey, Whitby, and Broughton Hall, it is a visual delight. LaBute paints the screen for us with the lush, green gardens, the gothic buildings and the cold seascapes of England, underscoring and emphasizing the romantic elements of his story.
In an interesting narrative approach, POSSESSION has two contemporary academics research the lives of two 19th century poets: Randolph Ash, a Poet Laureate based on the style of Robert Browning, played by Jeremy Northam; and, Christabel La Motte, an author of the same era known as a lesbian and a feminist, played by Jennifer Ehle. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the bright young professor Maude Bailey, a La Motte scholar and descendant. A young scholar visiting from America, Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), happens upon some letters that connect the two writers in ways previously unknown to even the best of academicians. Maude and Roland soon launch into an adventure that takes them across England, using the letters to trace the steps and intertwined lives of Ash and Christabel La Motte (who is based on Elizabeth Browning and Emily Dickenson).
POSSESSION matches its beautiful cinematography with rich costuming and poetic language. Maude, a serious academic who has obviously been burned in love before, claims that “there are no such thing as poets anymore,” yet becomes awakened and stirred by what she and Eckhart discover together. La Motte’s poetry is romantic (“I cannot let you burn me up, yet I can’t resist you”), and also nihilistic (“our doom is to live a long life out in a dark room”). Ash’s is sensual and relativistic (“where my thoughts are, there I am in truth”). While their poetry is truly lovely, it emphasizes (naturally, considering the Victorian Era setting) romantic and sensual pleasures over the reason of right or wrong, and both characters, though they wrestle some with their consciences, are ultimately caught in the traps of their emotion-driven actions.
POSSESSION does a good job of showing the audience the consequences of Romantic philosophy and even contains some elements displaying a biblical worldview. (Of course, many non-Christian worldviews borrow, some would say steal, from biblical, Christian concepts because people live in the world that God created.) The young researchers make an important moral choice in their relationship. When La Motte is in trouble, she seeks help and comfort in a religious community. It is disturbing, however, when Ash thanks God for his mistress as they lie together in bed readying to commit adultery.
POSSESSION tells a good story, a kind of academic mystery. It depicts the excitement and intrigue of scholarly discovery, a fresh theme in modern movies. The characters are well cast and believable in their roles. The relationship between Paltrow and Eckhart is fun, and funny, to watch unfold. Eckhart’s Roland Mitchell comes off a bit too immature and scruffy for an academic on fellowship with the British Museum, but the persona works well in his romance with Paltrow.
The biggest problem with POSSESSION is the clear endorsement of romantic philosophy over reason and morality. Ash obviously struggles with guilt over betrayal of his wife, whom he clearly loves. La Motte regrets hurting Ash and his wife, but in the end, she declares, “Was not the love we found worth the tempest it brought?” In the midst of the agony, the audience senses that they believe it was.
POSSESSION matches its beautiful cinematography with rich costuming and poetic language. Paltrow, a serious academic who has been burned in love before, claims that “there are no such thing as poets anymore,” yet becomes stirred by what she and Eckhart discover together. While their poetry is truly lovely, it emphasizes romantic and sensual pleasures over the reason of right or wrong. Both characters, though they wrestle some with their consciences, are ultimately caught in the traps of their emotion-driven actions