Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Neil La Bute
Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey
Rated: PG-13

At last — a truly great film emerges from the summer of 2002, and about damn time! Yes, there have been some very good films this summer — topping the list are Lilo Stitch and The Emperor’s New Clothes — but they’ve been sparse. This brilliant film by Neil LaBute shoots to the head of the class. Adapted from A.S. Byatt’s (author of the source novel for Angels and Insects) novel by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), Laura Jones (Angela’s Ashes), and LaBute, it’s a solidly-crafted, old-fashioned piece of filmmaking that constantly delights, never insults your intelligence, and is invariably inventive and creative. Asking for a better movie would be downright cheeky — you’d just be asking too much. If the idea of a movie about a pair of academics uncovering a 150-year-old “scandalous” love affair between a supposedly happily married poet laureate and a lesser, supposedly lesbian poet sounds drier than James Bond’s martini that’s because you haven’t seen Possession. The film takes an unpromising idea and manages to make it a funny, savvy, moving, even exciting detective story, effortlessly telling two tales at once in gloriously romantic terms with a great sense of style. When I say that Possession is old-fashioned, I mean that in the best sense of the term. It is reminiscent of the more thoughtfully adventurous films of the 1970s — embracing the idea that viewers were capable of following complex narratives done in a dramatically powerful style and unafraid to call attention to the filmmaking process itself. LaBute’s film is quietly “flashy,” moving present to past and back again. On one breathtakingly beautiful occasion temporally distant events are brought together by simply panning from a character in the present to one from the past within the same scene. Because of its parallel story structure, Possession is being compared to Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but its multilayered narrative is more reminiscent of Ken Russell movies such as Mahler and Savage Messiah.. It looks more like those films than it does the Reisz picture — no accident, since LaBute employed the services of Russell alumni Luciana Arrighi (Dante’s Inferno, Women in Love) and Ian Whitaker (set dresser on nearly all of Russell’s 1970s work) to give the film its look. It’s remarkable filmmaking firmly grounded in one of the cleverest, most intelligently written, witty screenplays of recent memory. The script captures the bitchy back-biting of the academic world and the strangely insular quality of a small section of society where people have obscure specialties that have become jealously guarded obsessions. When American research assistant Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is missing from his post, his put-upon boss, Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens), sniffs, “Being American, he’s probably off drug-trafficking.” No sooner does Roland express surprise that Maud Bailey’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) personal pet poet, Christabel LaMotte, was a lesbian than she shoots him down by icily telling him to not get excited, “They didn’t have video cameras in those days.” The script is never at a loss for a clever turn of phrase or a delightfully barbed remark, and it comes across as spot-on in a screenplay dealing with highly-intelligent, highly-educated characters smart enough to realize their own absurdities. The cleverness is not limited to the dialogue. Possession brims with nice touches of unexpected physical action, as in every time that Roland…”borrows” a rare document or when an unscrupulous collector casually places his business card on the barrel of a shotgun being aimed at him by a suspicious property holder. The storyline is also unusual in reversing our expectations concerning historically revisionist work. Whereas “scandals” about genuine historical people often center around the revelation of homosexuality, here we have one built on the revelation of unsuspected heterosexuality. Another interesting wrinkle is that Ash’s (Jeremy Northam) betrayed wife is less devastated by the affair than is LaMotte’s lover (Lena Heady). There’s scarcely a false move in the film. It’s beautifully realized from start to finish with flawless performances not just from Paltrow, Eckhart, Northam, and Ehle, but from supporting players like Toby Stephens, Graham Crowden, and Anna Massey. The film’s greatest strength, however, lies in the unforced way its literary detectives get at some of the truth of what happened, but are still left with a great degree of conjecture and supposition. It’s only the viewers — not the characters — who are let in on the whole truth. See this rich, heavily textured, multi-layered film as soon as you can.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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