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RELAX! at the Movies with Thom


I realize lately that all of my reviews have a sameness to them, so for my review of the new literary romance Possession, I’ve decided to take a different approach:


There is a new level of hotness brought by all involved with the racy tameness known as Possession, Neil Labute’s romantic epic about two sets of scholars who have heads for literacy and bods for sin. The film, an adaptation of the 1990 Booker Prize winning novel, by A.S. Byatt, centers on Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), a brash and charismatic American on a fellowship in London to study the works of the great Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). Now, in Possession-land, Ash, the poet laureate to Queen Victoria, is best know for the glorious volumes of love poetry he wrote and dedicated to his wife that are the centerpiece of the London Museum’s Centennial celebration of his work. His discovery of some racy love scrawlings not directed to Ash’s wife leads him to Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a brilliant British academic whose primary reason for being is to research the life and work of the poetess Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). When Maud and Roland start to investigate some coincidences, they stumble upon a cache of love letters exchanged between Ash and LaMotte, the race to unravel the mysteries of the relationship between the poets sweeps our two young scholars up in torrents of passion across the European continent. Okay, they only go across the Channel to France, but you get the picture.

Where do I begin? There isn’t a thing about this film that’s real, yet I loved it. It was HOT! Paltrow, trotting out that accent that won her an Oscar (but won’t this time no matter how hard she tries), and Eckhart, a LaBute regular who is perhaps best known as the man who asks Julia Roberts for her number in the excellent Erin Brockovich, bring the new hotness as our pair of modern day, star-crossed, commitment-phobic lovers destined to be together. But it’s Ms. Ehle, a British actress with an extensive theatre resume, her hair red like fire from the sun and blood from the vein, who emerges as the one to watch. Like a mistress of the night, she commands your attention and craves your love. She’s got the HEAT! Plus, she plays a lesbian, which I am not endorsing, but it does tend to make her more exotic than someone who plays a character named Maud. I mean, Bea Aruthur had her own sitcom named Maude, but does anyone really think she can stand in the flame and not be consumed?

You can ponder that question as you gag on the inanities of the plot, which is SO contrived as to make Three’s Company look downright intelligent (which it was, but in a low IQ sort of way). People chase whims and theories across miles at the drop of a hat without so much as an afterthought, like no one in the film has a real job or responsibilities. There’s also a subplot involving Maud’s on and off boyfriend Fergus and his attempts to make a profit from Maud and Roland’s discovery. Then you have to swallow the following nonsense:

  1. Would you let a complete a total stranger who you just met today sleep in your apartment even though you could never in a million years believe his theories that your favorite lesbian poetess could be a (GASP) bi-sexual? And if you do, why don’t you have sex with him?
  2. If you’re making a 21st century film about romance and passion, why do the couple from the 19th century have romantic, passionate sex and the couple from the 21st have NONE?
  3. If you’re an 18th century kind of girl and you leave your lesbian lover to go on a month-long vacation alone with your male lover and three days into the trip you’re finally ready to have sex with him by showing yourself off in your corset, how did you get the corset on in the first place?
  4. Why do all sexually repressed people wear their ice blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun and talk really fast?
  5. As a director, how do you set up a story and lead it to the climatic point and then never climax? (See question 2) Towards the end of the film as the mystery starts to unravel, the tension goes out the window. A climatic chase scene to see who gets a crucial clue in the Ash/Lamotte is underdeveloped and worse, it feels completed out of place, like one of the bus chase scenes from Speed was grafted onto a Merchant/Ivory film.

Yet for all the mistakes the film makes, I couldn’t help but love it. What the film manages to get right is the feeling of delight one gets from being swept up in a good story or mystery. It also brings with it a deeply rooted love of words, written and spoken. In fact, I would argue that the actors are most effective when we’re listening to them read the letters and poetry of the two writers. You can sense the excitement and passion in their voices, especially Ms. Ehle, who really does bring the HEAT! So, I challenge all of you out there! Stand in the fire of Possession and try to resist being consumed by the musty infatuation with love and poetry and the crusty fascination with old letters. Or maybe you should just go to bed early with a good book. A REALLY good book.

Submitted 06 September 02. Posted 10 September 02.


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