(CNN) -- Who knew that beating in the hirsute chest of filmmaker Neil LaBute -- who brought us the highly cynical and hard-edged films "In The Company Of Men" (1997) and "Your Friends and Neighbors" (1998) -- was the trembling heart of a true romantic?
It's not a faint heart, either. Adapting A.S. Byatt's dense, Booker Prize-winning 1990 novel, "Possession," into a motion picture would be a daunting task for anyone. But this (albeit abridged) screenplay by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, and LaBute -- who also directed -- does capture a wonderful sense of timelessness between the modern-day lovers, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart, and the Victorian couple played by Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle, as this story jumps back and forth from the 19th to the 21st century.
The very concept of this extremely literary novel practically defies adaptation, and changes have been made. But the core of the story remains the same. Maud Bailey (Paltrow) is a British academic researching a biography of the 19th century poetess Christabel LaMotte (Ehle), who also happens to be a distant relation. Bailey is a rigid, determined young woman with her ice-cool blond mane twisted tightly into a firm, no-nonsense bun.
An American research assistant at the British Museum, Roland Michell (Eckhart), has a lifelong obsession with Randolph Henry Ash (Northam), the (fictitious) poet laureate to Queen Victoria. Michell's unshaven face, just-fell-out-of-bed attitude, and puppy-dog enthusiasm are in sharp contrast to Bailey's cold, calculated approach. They have little in common and, of course, are soon drawn to each other like moths to a flame.
Two Researchers, Two Poets
Michell has a theory that Ash and LaMotte had a passionate affair, despite the facts that Ash was known to be happily married, and LaMotte had a longtime lesbian relationship with a little-known artist, Blanche Glover (Lena Headey). At first, Bailey is just humoring him when she invites him to visit her relatives, Sir George and Lady Bailey, who live in a dilapidated manor house in the country, and are also direct descendants of the famous poetess.
There the two amateur sleuths discover a cache of old love letters proving that Ash and LaMotte did indeed have a relationship, and quite a steamy one at that -- especially by Victorian standards. The film now sweeps beautifully from one period to the other, with exquisitely crafted cinematic transitions between the two stories.
Along the way, the emotions within the two relationships are tested time and again, as all four attempt to follow their hearts despite social and personal pressures.
This production is beautifully mounted and reminiscent of the 1981 film "The French Lieutenant's Woman," scripted by Harold Pinter and based on John Fowles' novel. Not only do both films go back and forth between present day and the Victorian era, but the earlier film starred Meryl Streep, to whom Ehle bears an extraordinary resemblance, especially when she's dressed in the types of period capes and hoods used in both films. The likeness is uncanny. When you add the fact that Ehle is also an excellent actress, the comparisons get almost spooky.
Lust, love and guilt
On the surface, the subject matter of British academia would seem as lifeless as a moon rock, but the characters are genuinely involving, and some of the dialogue is outlandishly witty. Oddly enough, it seems the modern-day lovers are more uptight and carry more emotional baggage then their Victorian counterparts. The result is a romantic melodrama teeming with lust, love, guilt, and raw passion, all wrapped in the splendid visuals provided by cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier.
Once again, Paltrow has dragged out her British accent like a magician displaying a signature trick -- but hey, it's a great trick. Eckhart -- a favorite of LaBute -- shows considerable charm as his character is slowly drawn into emotional territory that scares him to death. Ehle is remarkable; hopefully, her startling resemblance to Streep will not hinder her career. Northam is the only main player that doesn't seem to ring completely true. He never seems comfortable in the poet's skin.
LaBute continues to defy being labeled in any way. He may be best known for the two films mentioned at the beginning of this review, but he also brought us the dark, hilarious comedy "Nurse Betty" in 2000. He's once again proven his versatility with "Possession."