We also know that researchers, once on the scent, sink into a kind of glorious private passion for their work that is both comic in its scale and enviable in its excitement.                

POSSESSION

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


 

                Have you ever sat in a movie having a terrific time even as inconsistencies and flaws try to erode your pleasure?  Try Possession.  Director Neil La Bute has filmed A.S. Byatt’s romantic novel in an unpredictable departure from his track record of brutal misogyny (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors).  Mr. La Bute still has trouble with man/woman relationships, believing, it seems, that maybe they shouldn’t happen at all, and that if they do, it will be against all odds. 

                This problem of his puts British Professor Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and American graduate student Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) in an awkward position as they meet over their mutual historical research.  Though it’s obvious each has a problem surrendering to a new person, we are never quite sure why. 

                Maud, professional and brittle, is a passionate researcher of Christabel LaMotte, a minor Victorian poet who has become a feminist heroine.  Roland is tracking the biographical details of Randolph Ash, renowned poet laureate to Queen Victoria.  The two academics come together over Roland’s discovery of a correspondence between the Victorians. 

                Mr. La Bute’s greatest contribution to the movie is his way of joining past and present as the moderns revisit the sites that the Victorians inhabited.  Their voices, one couple writing, one later reading, describe what we see.  We watch both couples fall in love by a waterfall, on a street, or in a house where the others have been before.  It is a neat trick used repeatedly and smoothly throughout the movie. 

                This is a good old-fashioned literary detective story filmed in a wealth of detail that makes it absolutely delicious.   We all know that arrogance, nastiness, and pettiness thrive in the mildew of academia, and so it is here.  We also know that researchers, once on the scent, sink into a kind of glorious private passion for their work that is both comic in its scale and enviable in its excitement. 

                Roland, the visiting Yank and focus of condescension for all the Brits, sits in the library stacks on his wonderful office chair, swiveling and tilting from this index card box to that, rolling a full aisle when a new idea pops into his head.  He’s finding the pieces of his puzzle in a British institution with an American’s ingenuity.  Maud, needing to be pulled along from her more scholarly attitude, finally joins the search and gives permission for the fun to begin.        

                We race across that beautiful country with Maud and Roland as they recite the poetry of their subjects.  If an over-the-top graveyard scene has a Mack Sennett aspect to it, who cares?  Ms. Paltrow uses her famous facility with British reserve well, Mr. Eckhart gives the right touch of American irreverence to serious things.  Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam are grand as the couple from long ago.  Mr. LaBute’s inability to deal with romantic relationships did not diminish my delight one bit. 

 


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