Neil LaBute believes in romance; he just can’t bring himself to write it. He’s known, of course, for the likes of The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, mordant black comedies that offer no hope for the future of male/female relations except as material for sado-masochistic humor. But with the property of other writers — such as the John C. Richards–scripted Nurse Betty and now Possession, his adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize–winning 1990 novel, he suggests that, at heart, he yearns to be Penny Marshall.
Fortunately there’s little danger of that, though he does venture close to Merchant Ivory territory here. A post-postmodern variation on Karel Reisz’s adaptation (via Harold Pinter) of John Fowles’s 1981 novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Possession is the tale of two mismatched contemporary academics — gelid British feminist Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and bumptious American research drone Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) — who are investigating a possible liaison between a revered Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), and his eccentric contemporary Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle).
Searching through file cards and dusty volumes of Vico wouldn’t seem a likely inspiration for great cinema, and neither does the sputtering sexual chemistry of literary sleuths set the imagination afire, so you might expect the re-creation of the bodice-ripping period romance to dominate the film as it does the book. LaBute, however, is a professor himself (at Brigham Young University), and he has a perverse insight into the ivory-tower world (recall Ben Stiller’s drama professor, one of the redeeming elements of Your Friends and Neighbors) plus an affinity for the present day that’s softened by Byatt’s gentler detachment and sparked by an appealing cast. All of which makes the pre-Raphaelite-canvas forays into the mid 1800s seem a distraction. Give me instead Eckhart’s unshaven Yank upstart, an inspired deviation from Byatt’s meek working-class British original. He shows little hesitation in purloining the draft of a love letter from a London library as he begins his research into a love that’s remained hidden for a century and a half. "I’m just a brush-and-flush kind of guy," he describes himself to Maud when he tracks her down as the reigning Christabel expert (she’s a distant descendant and a manhater as well). Paltrow’s scowl could cut glass, but something in her disdain hints that she’ll be untying her tightly bunned blond hair before the film’s end.
Eckhart’s Roland, meanwhile, is "off women" — roles in three previous LaBute films might have something to do with that. But a common goal and a shared sensibility can be powerful aphrodisiacs, as indeed it was with Henry and Christabel, and the thrill of discovery becomes something more than intellectual. In one of the film’s most artful scenes, Maud and Roland hunt through the antique toys in one of Christabel’s old residences. They’re stymied till Maud recalls some of the poet’s cryptic verses, clues that lead them to hidden treasure. Their success confirms their faith in the link between word and meaning and external reality that has been lost in the anomie of the deconstructionist era; it also nudges them, hesitantly, to a faith in the link between souls.
This wavering affirmation of passion, so uncharacteristic for LaBute and so jaded in Byatt, somehow surges when their two sensibilities combine, and especially when Eckhart and Paltrow are on the screen. With Northam, however, we get the Ash but not the fire, and Ehle’s Christabel spends an inordinate time with pursed lips. Moreover, the complications of the earlier pair’s insignificant others — Henry’s desiccated, sex-hating wife, Christabel’s co-dependent lesbian lover — are clichŽs. Little better are the machinations surrounding Maud and Roland: seen as comparable to the identification of Shakespeare’s "Dark Lady," their breakthrough is coveted by an American academic hotshot with a big budget. His venal maneuvers to gain possession of the critical text come to a literal dead end.
Because money can’t buy you love, to quote another British poet. And neither can cynicism and misanthropy verging on the sophomoric disguise LaBute’s respect for that much abused sentiment. Here it takes possession of him, albeit through the medium of another author, and that allows him to achieve his most affecting film to date.