on August 16, 2002 by Annlee Ellingson
   Director Neil LaBute, who gained notoriety with his scathing critiques of the relationships between men and women in "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends and Neighbors," takes a 180-degree turn with "Possession," a bona fide romance about two pairs of lovers, one in modern-day London, the other from the Victorian era. What LaBute has retained is his acute depiction of a complicated couple. What he has lost is the full realization of their relationship.

   Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is a brash American with a fellowship to study Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). In his research, Roland stumbles upon a love letter by Ash, written not to his wife, whom he unabashedly adored, but to fellow poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). That Ash and LaMotte not only would have corresponded but would have been lovers is a profound discovery that would garner Roland respect among his stodgy colleagues.

   For corroboration, Roland consults Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a brilliant, if cold, English academic who has dedicated her life to the study of LaMotte, a feminist and lesbian whom Maud admires for her forward-thinking. Together, they uncover a paper trail that proves Roland's theory--and fall in love themselves along the way.

   LaBute and his co-writers David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, adapting the novel by A.S. Byatt, demonstrate a true love for the written word, scripting long (too long) dialogue exchanges in which Maud and Roland read to each other the love letters that they have uncovered, seemingly in their entirety, before the scene segues to Ash and LaMotte. Indeed, one pines for such paper trails in an age when most communication takes place in the ether.

   The performances across the board are predictably solid, given the talent involved. Ehle in particular is at once cherubic and mature, clever and cultured, selfish and sacrificing.

   Of the two relationships, Maud and Roland's is the more intriguing. A feminist who has been criticized by her girlfriends for her pretty blonde hair, Maud maintains a distance from Roland even while she is drawn to him, afraid of sacrificing her independence and her strength. Roland is a modern man and understands her hesitation but still is red-blooded and frustrated. Unfortunately, these complexities are unsatisfactorily resolved. Neither is Ash and LaMotte's relationship conventional, but at least they experience some sort of closure. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle. Directed by Neil LaBute. Written by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and Neil LaBute. Produced by Paula Weinstein and Barry Levinson. A USA release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for sexuality and some thematic elements. Running time: 103 min

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