Possession (DVD, 2003) Reviews
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Possession (DVD, 2003)

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Who Owns POSSESSION? A.S. Byatt? Neil LaBute? Or Dracula?

Aug 15, 2002 (Updated Aug 16, 2002)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The looks of Aaron Eckhart, the performance and looks of Gwyneth Paltrow. Escoffier's photography.

Cons:The drab, prosaic screenplay, and almost everything else.

The Bottom Line: With NURSE BETTY (2001) and now POSSESSION, scorpion-like director Neil LaBute has begun to run out of high grade venom, which he has replaced with snidely sentimental mush.

Anyone who has lived in Europe is conscious of existing in contiguity, not just within ones grandparents' or great grandparents' time and space, but in the far past, when humans on a pure land inhabited by dragons and marching Roman Legions did indeed paint themselves blue or other colors, not as a fashion statement, but as a religious and clan rite. It is that kind of feeling which evidently informs A.S. Byatt's 1990 Booker Prize novel, Possession. This extraordinary spiritual sensation of living in the same skin with generations past is what Neil LaBute's new film adaptation of the same title tries for, and utterly fails at.

POSSESSION really fails at almost everything else, too.

While admittedly not having read the novel, I can grasp Possession's central ideas from the richness attributed to it.

In a Post War, Post Empire period of the late 1980's, almost a Post Cold War, Post Modern, Post almost-anything-you-want-to-name-World, everything was suddenly for sale, and so the struggle of couples to find true meaning and real value in life had become much harder. A few, who gained the advantage of what passes for a classical education now, might still turn to the past, in order to find perhaps a sense of reality and continuity, about which the richest and trendiest from our consumer culture do not have a clue. In Possession, the social, cultural and literary past, then, is Ms. Byatt's playground for young lovers.

She constructs two parallel universes by which seekers in the present may interact in their imaginations with figures from another time -- much as we do in a good reading experience -- can share their problems and solutions, can leapfrog into straitlaced Victorian society, even medieval Courts of Love, possibly reference ancient times. And so it is that one day, young British Museum scholar, Rowland Mitchell, chanced to find in the pages of an old book, once owned by Victorian Poet Laureate Randolph Henry Ash, drafts of a pair of 1859 "love letters" to Poetess Christabel LaMotte, a woman other than his wife, Ellen.

A rabbit hole into a secret past.

For a towering figure like Ash, known by his devotion to his wife, wellspring of the poetry on which his modern reputation is supposedly based, these letters can change attitudes, beliefs, literary history. For people around the idealistic Rowland Mitchell, the letters can mean academic advancement and perhaps a great deal of money.

Right away, Mr. LaBute's filmic choices, and the screen adaptation of Possession he wrote with Laura Jones and David Henry Hwang, are in trouble. First of all, he has chosen, perhaps in consideration of box office pressures, to change Rowland Mitchell's rather bumbling Post Modern English hero into a "cut" and brash American god (LaBute's faithful stock player, Aaron Eckhart of THE COMPANY OF MEN, 2000). Eckhart is a good enough actor, and he tries his best to fulfill his role, but the unsure screenplay gives him little help. With his three day beard and slouching disinterest, we wonder, with his colleagues, why and how did this Yankee candidate for Gap advertising become an advanced graduate assistant in Victorian Studies -- at the British Museum, no less.

Second, LaBute-Jones-Hwang have not licked a cinematic problem inherent in the epistolary novel form, and what A.S. Byatt chose to do with it in Possession. In a novel, one can suspend disbelief, float along in a literary-historical fantasy. Yes, we may accept on the page that an amalgam of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Robert Browning might have been mixed up with a surrogate of Pre-Raphaelite Poetess Christina Rossetti, unbeknownst to an imaginary wife like Elizabeth Barrett Browning. We can allow that ponderous journals and florid poetry may fit these characters, and since they are all part of Ms. Byatt's artistic legerdemain, and once we have suspended our precious disbelief, the words may equal, for a moment at least, Tennyson's "Maude," Browning's "Love Among the Ruins" or Rosetti's "Goblin Market." [It helps, I'm sure, not to have read such representative works as these by the extraordinary real English poets.] But as soon as one of the faux literary characters appears in LaBute's movie POSSESSION, to intone snippets of rambling narrations and meretricious poems, our fantasy is exploded.

And that happens in the first shot.

Thirdly, LaBute and company have not found a way, even in their stripped down screenplay, to energize a narrative, which by its nature, is introspective and meditative.

And so, by Byatt possessed but not in truly in love with her offspring, LaBute shows us first a haggard Poet Ash (Jeremy Northam) wandering across a heath in 1868, voicing on the sound track some besotted but forgettable nonsense about past time and love lost. Then, we have Eckhart's Rowland Mitchell as a smilingly "ugly American" hero unknowingly occupying the approximate milieux of his future love, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). And in the same general air are the film's two villains, a really ugly American, Professor Martin Cropper (Trevor Eve), and Maud's English academic social climber friend, Fergis Wolff (Toby Stephens). The engine is there, true, but LaBute never manages to turn its key.

Professor Cropper and toady Wolff are shown to be particularly slimy and greedy, eyes all sideways, in Machiavellian thought. Cropper is a modern day American Lord Elgin, raping auction houses and dealers of British cultural treasures, such as any artifacts from the life of Laureate Ash, so he can haul them back to his University collection in New Mexico. Wolff sucks up to him, perhaps in hopes of a pleasant year or two as Visiting Scholar among the aborigines of the American Southwest. (He is the kind of bounder who would force slim willow Gwyneth Paltrow to hold his heavy camels hair overcoat for him.) But, once the villains share clues as to what Rowland Mitchell is up to, the plot drive that their tracking of him might afford the film is handled with perfunctory and intermittent indifference.

Mitchell, at least, dubiously establishes his American moral superiority, when a diffident librarian in the Reading Room of the London Library says, "Oh, you're that A-M-M-er-r-ican!" Mitchell caps him with, "Yes, and you're our favorite colony." [Pretty much the truth, come to think of it. Presumably, the screenplay was written before we Americans, astoundingly, set out to conquer the World . . . but maybe not.]

In the Reading Room, Mitchell steals the secreted letters to Miss LaMotte he has found, and when his cozy, lovable, but scattered (Irish, you understand) Senior Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) can't be bothered to notice Mitchell's discovery, he decides, since he knows next to nothing of Christabel LaMotte, to journey 80 miles north of London to the spanking new modern University of Lincoln, where the afore-noted Maud Bailey is a well known English authority in Victorian Feminist Studies.

Amid the sterile modernity and computer scholarship of her offices, Maud is soon appalled by Mitchell's ignorance but caught in the web of his discovery, so much so that she brings him home to spend a weekend at the stately mansion of her parents, Sir George and Lady Bailey (Graham Crowden and Anna Massey), which coincidentally -- or is it fate? -- happens to be the former home of Christabel LaMotte, Randolph Ash's secret love. What they find in Christabel's tower room sets them off on a trail of epistolary passion, which leads to Whitby on the seacoast of Yorkshire, and later to Nantes in Brittany where the tradition of Courtly Love began.

To freshen a cliche, the course of Courtly and True Love is seldom smooth, and equally not so in terms of our Movie's verisimilitude and plot. Thus, the Lovers have their troubles, sometimes through telecommunications with the perfidious Fergus Wolff, but all the while, we are getting quick scenes by morning and candle light of pinched Poet Ash and the constrained Christabel (Jennifer Ehle). Not to mention their significant others -- Wife Ellen Ash (Ellen Aird) and Lucy (Felicity Brangan), Christabel's genteelly lesbian . . . companion -- all through the medium of pen nibs scratching precious words on good vellum, and read to us additionally in voice-overs, threading the Post Modern and the Victorian World with one and other.

They all come together, as it were, in poetically gushing water and a hidden cave at Thomason Falls in Northern Yorkshire.

All the elements for Romance are there -- the Synchronicity so treasured by today's New Age sensibilities -- but, like the vertebras of the little girl after Toddy's operation in Robert Wise's darkly romantic *THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), no life or vigor flows through them. Whether Barry Levinson (RAINMAN, 1988), listed by Epinions as Co-Director (but in the POSSESSION'S crawl as a Producer) helped or hindered LaBute's realization of the Movie, the results are disappointing.

Clearly, as my companion of the evening, the perceptive Vivian observed, the contrasts and similarities of romantic love are there. We see how rich in emotion the Victorian World could be, how wealthy in material terms are the Middle Class surroundings of our Transatlantic Couple, how love sews the two pair together, but we are not seriously involved, though we might like to be.

At the heart of Byatt's novel must be the same paradox that might have saved the picture. Courtly Love (no, not Courtney Love) emerged during 12th Century France, (from poetic and mythological origins in the legends of King Arthur, Guinivere, and Lancelot) as a code of etiquette for lonely Ladies (left by Crusading husbands) and their remaining courtiers around the old castle. Women, in control, set up quests and courtesies for knights to perform, and in theory at least, all the participants were, as a result, able to remain chaste. The Literary thread of Courtly Love in England leads through Chaucer to Shakespeare, and is taken up again by the Pre-Raphaelites (of whom Christina Rosetti was one) as a revolutionary theory, very much like notions from the Hippie Movement of the 1960's. Paintings, music, literature and design suggested a feminine alternative to a crude masculine, morality-bound Industrialization, which, for all its gentility, was the underlying reality of Victorian England. The paradox the Pre-Raphaelites saw, in the face of rigid morality on one side of society and the degradation of poverty on the other, involved attempting to remain chaste through Art, often giving in to passion, and then renouncing it. LaBute does not vivify that paradox in the 19th Century sections of POSSESSION, nor very much in its present.

I don't know if Byatt's novel takes up the conflict between High Church or Fundamentalist cosmology and Darwinism. (1859 being the date of The Origin of the Species). Or the political conflict of the Conservatives and the new Liberal Party. (Modern British Democracy is dated from Liberal Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston's second assumption of the Prime Ministership.) Or the terrible schism between those who wanted to keep England "green and pleasant" and those who exploited it at home, and carried on a series of Colonial Wars abroad, much as we threaten to destroy the World Environment and launch a wide ranging war of Imperialism today. (The London Times of 1859 to 1868, the timespan of the Ash-LaMotte liaison, would have been full of British encouragement of the Second Opium War in China, furious conflicts like the Anglo-Basuto War and revenge activities following the Indian Sepoy Rebellion.) The real life poets, who are models for Byatt's characters, were vehemently concerned with these issues, which are the subtexts for much of their work.

Clearly, LaBute's screenplay, at the risk of being unfaithful to Byatt's novel, needs some reference to these matters, if only to provide a context, and, for all its flowery language, relief from what is frankly a pretty turgid, remarkably prosaic Victorian love story. It needs some comparable grounding, possibly more galvanizing emphasis on both the literary and romantic chase, in the awkward progress of Rowland and Maud, which begins to seem juvenile and self-indulgent after a time.

POSSESSION, far from being a dramatization of Byatt's conceit, gives only hints at it. For instance, the tiny allusions to the play of names with Maud (Tennyson), Christabel (Coleridge), Lucy (Stoker), etc, so pleasurable no doubt in the novel, are never referred to in terms of their possible significance, to Byatt anyway.

The name Lucy, a ghoulish scene late in Possession, and the atmospheric location shooting of Jean-Yves Escoffier (Robbins, CRADLE WILL ROCK, 1999) in Whitby (setting for much of Dracula) remind me that Labute, in addition to consulting almost any successful Hollywood costume drama of the 1930's and 1940's, might have taken up that most popular of Late 19th Century (Gothic) Romantic Epistolary novels, Dracula by Brom Stoker, for some tips on how such properties should be handled in the Movies. Todd Browning's DRACULA (1931), his sisters, sons, daughters and finally his dog, may be seen to meditate, often excitingly, on how our past lives within us, frequently invading the present. And no matter how klunky it is at moments, Francis Ford Coppola's production of BROM STOKER'S DRACULA (1992) gave that impression on a grand scale.

A slightly less Gothic and melodramatic approach would have been discovered in ANGELS AND INSECTS (Haas, 1995), itself based on a Byatt story. And with all the Meryl Streep look-alikes running around in POSSESSION, LaBute should have gotten more out of his running and re-running Karel Reisz's 1981 THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN.

Possibly, the bottom line is that Neil Labute is much like his creation, Eckhart-Mitchell. He is one step up from an American tourist. He can't really understand the possible spirituality residing in the British and French landscape. From his careful camera placement of Eckhart walking past a red telephone pillar box to establish we are in Britain, in London, he takes us on a kind of guided tour of Britain and a (simulated) France which he is incompetent to lead, in the present -- far less in the past.

People who really like Possession will be those who are simply turned on by Eckhart's angular face or physique, and by Paltrow's cool, intelligent professionalism, or those who are able somehow to relive Byatts' novel in their imaginations.





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