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Possession

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam
Directed by: Neil LaBute
Novel: A.S. Byatt
Screenplay: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and Neil LaBute
Rated: PG-13

 

Possession is one of the most romantic films I've ever seen…it's certainly up there with The English Patient though not quite a Casablanca or an End of the Affair.

Based on A.S. Byatt's sprawling novel, Possession is a touching sleuth piece about lost letters, forbidden love, and social acceptabilities. Now for the screen adapter/screenwriters David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute have woven a yarn rich in enchantment yet strangely realistic considering the subject matter.

Director LaBute has taken this nearly impeccable script and put in place a perfect crew, sprinkled it with a precise cast, which together, manage to deliciously paint the screen as Possession seamlessly swings to and fro from present to past telling two tales at once; one from a century ago and one fixed in today's relationship dramas.

And yes I said Neil LaBute. That Neil Labute - Your Friends and Neighbors and In The Company of Men - LaBute. Sure, LaBute's infamous for making men look like testosterone infused rabid frothing sex pigs in his films but with Possession he actually turns himself around a tad and creates two incredible male characters not only likable but charming and addictive.

First is Roland Mitchell an American in London who is interning at a swanky British museum filled with cavernous crevices and the permeating sounds of "shhhh. " Roland is played by LaBute regular, studly Aaron Eckhart. He's a completely warm and open character at once familiar and unapologetic for his bursting personality and enthusiasm for life; decidedly unBritish in demeanor.

Then there's Randolph Henry Ash, a long deceased Victorian era lover's poet who happens to be the museum's subject matter this season on his centennial celebration. Ash is played by the object of my affection, that leading man that looks as if he's from yesteryear, uber handsome talent Jeremy Northam. With Roland and Randolph, Mr. "Show The Worst In Men" LaBute has created two deep thoughtful men that are honest with women concerned about expressing themselves and open (mostly) with their adoration. It's a fairy tale of sorts you see.

The women are just as well written. Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Ehle who play the gals to the beaus of different eras are into. They are two strong fragile believable women. Don't worry LaBute fans he's still as subtly cynical as ever and has his screenplay riddled with razor sharp dialog, he's just stepped into a less pimple showing world and managed to create a extraordinary romantic piece with his signature flares of truths.

Story goes Roland Mitchell is in London for a brief fellowship (he's an intern) at the great British Museum. It's the centennial of British love poet Randolph Henry Ash and he's been placed in charged of menial tasks like what did Ash's beloved wife serve for guests in 1859. While reading up in one the oodles of books Ash left behind, Roland discovers two handwritten notes from Ash to a woman….

Ash corresponding with a woman? He was supposed to be this pillar of society and an adoring faithful husband. Figures. If the letter means what they seem to mean, history books will have to tell a much raunchier tale. This is a big discovery. Like finding Beethoven held a Harem or something - fun frivolous historical gossip that would make an ancient Enquirer giddy with each word.

Roland must figure out who this woman was and if was truly an 'affair' between the two as the letters' descriptive tones and seductive wording suggests.

He follows his hunches to a feminist poet of Ash's era, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Well to Christabel's official historian, Maude Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). Maude's a bit of a stuffed shirt with a side of starch. She dismisses Roland's ludicrous letters and insinuations for several reasons. But when they learn that Ash and LaMotte did indeed meet and chat at a swanky dinner function of the elite in late 1859 she too is intrigued enough to assist the dreamy eyed American. She's stuffy but not stupid and realizes how this would affect history if Christabel and his Randolph were indeed going rabid Rhesus monkey in the days of old.

Passion possesses the two as they follow in the doomed couple's trail of intrigue, slowly discovering ancient truths that had been long forgotten....or buried.

Yes, the story sounds like a seventy-nine cent romance novel that you read while standing at the checkout. But it is not. Possession manages to remain firmly realistic even while dipping into extreme romantic settings riddled with feather pens, gothic backdrops, evanescent waterfalls and ruffled petticoats. Why does it work so well? Simple. LaBute knows people. He can create a whole being on paper; not always the nicest of folks as we LaBute fans know; but yet so complete with minute idiosyncrasies and great dialogs rich with truth. I can't recall ever being disappointed by his work and here is no exception. Just a beautiful captivating film.

Aaron Eckhart is morphing into pure grade A mansteak gals. He's always been a tad cute but here he's simply delectable. Partly because he's not playing his usual LaBute as***** and partly because he is just such an immense talent. He's an American treasure really. In Possession Aar's Roland (unlike his past LaBute characters) is actually a normal respectable guy with no big hang ups (well none that aren't workable), no hatred for the softer sex, he's genuinely sweet and he's got an amazing personality mixed in to the fantasy. Wrap him up I'll take him! Eckhart also shows his comic timing is as honed as his dramatic instrument. A brilliant guy.

Gwyneth Paltrow is perfect as the quiet fierce bookworm with and undercurrent of passion. I enjoy her choices. In The Royal Tennenbaums she truly proved her range. She can handle anything. Hell, I even liked Bounce.

Jeremy Northam is by far one of the most exciting actors in films today. He disappears into a role so completely one has to do a double take to be sure it's him. He's in everything…Gosford Park (singing no less...be still my pounding heart) Enigma, Winslow Boy etc…etc. Notice a trend? Yeah, he's usually all studmuffined up in 'period' clothing. He's done a few thoroughly modern Milton roles but he apparently understands he looks as if he's accidentally stepped into a portal of time travel and made it to this era and relishes in the roles of his "look." And to say Jeremy's looks are breath taking is an understatement. He's as sweet on the retina as a double stack of home made flapjacks drizzled with warm sticky maple syrup oozing from his manly pores...several helpings would be in order - if you know what I mean...

Rounding out the impeccable cast is Jennifer Ehle. Another wonderful British import. Jen's a mainstay in London theater flexing her celluloid muscles. She's a radiant actor to say the least. I remember her from Sunshine with Studasnarus Rex Ralph Fiennes. She sparkled there too. Though not too frequent on the screen if you look for her name in the cast you shouldn't be disappointed, provided you enjoy drama.

Possession is fabulous. It is a rare truly romantic film that doubles, oddly enough, as a twisting mystery. The cast, direction, set design, cinematography, seamless editing, script, and soundtrack will treat you to a very special trip to the theater. Find this and enjoy!

Snack recommendation: Cucumber sandwiches and tea.


Official site

The Blunt Interview with Jeremy Northam - though unrelated to the film still a hoot!

 

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