Criticism

Possession

“Part Nancy Drew mystery, part Indiana Jones swashbuckler, part Merchant-Ivory bodice ripper, this latest film from LaBute seems, at first glance, about as different from his previous films as it possibly could be. But closer inspection reveals that beneath the corsets and carriages and Harlequin romances, Possession centers around sexual politics, just as his other movies have…”

possession

Based on A.S. Byatt’s 1990 novel, Possession depicts the parallel romances between a pair of Victorian-era poets and the modern day researchers studying them. When American scholar Roland (Aaron Eckhart) discovers a love letter written by Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), poet laureate to Queen Victoria, he suspects it may have been intended for Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a leading poet of her time and a known lesbian. The discovery, if proven correct, represents a major upset in academia’s opinion of Ash, as he has long been held to have been rapturously faithful to his wife. Roland enlists the help of Maud (Gwyneth Paltrow), a brilliant-but-icy English academic and the leading expert on LaMotte’s life, and together, they set about on a trek that mirrors a passionate excursion taken by the poets a century earlier. As the two scholars uncover clues about the secret affair, they find themselves falling uneasily in love.

Despite how overwrought and gooey all this sounds, director Neil LaBute conjures an impressive amount of intrigue around the mysterious connection between the two poets. At the same time, he creates quite a tantalizing love affair between the modern-day couple, the irony being that Roland and Maud’s tentative romance is much more timid and reserved than the impassioned fling in which the Victorian poets find themselves engaged.

Part Nancy Drew mystery, part Indiana Jones swashbuckler, part Merchant-Ivory bodice ripper, this latest film from LaBute seems, at first glance, about as different from his previous films as it possibly could be. But closer inspection reveals that beneath the corsets and carriages and Harlequin romances, Possession centers around sexual politics, just as his other movies have.  Even in a Victorian setting, LaBute can’t seem to rid himself of the misogyny he claims he doesn’t have, but which has been quite prevalent in his earlier films, particularly In The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. Of the three main female characters in Possession, one is a militant lesbian and another is, in the words of one of her male colleagues, a “ball-breaker.” If I were a woman, perhaps, or even more of an activist, LaBute’s sexist views might really bother me. But, having enjoyed all of of his work (with the possible exception of Nurse Betty), I generally find his acerbic tendencies make for compelling drama. Here, he has crafted a well-made story of mystery, deception and romance that culminates in a thoroughly unexpected and satisfying conclusion.

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