Thursday, April 06, 2006

Dan Heller's review of Possession

From Dan Heller Photography
When writing this review, it struck me that I wanted to start with a statement about the writer/director before mentioning the film. A noteworthy event, since this meant that I was probably going to add a new name to my list of favorite filmmakers. His name is Neil LaBute, and while none of his movies have been my favorites, all seem to illustrate an insight into one aspect of humanity that evoke a strong reaction, or at least, reflect one. And yet, none of his films explore the full range of "character" that a person may possess. Rather, each film seems to explore just one aspect of the human condition. Hence, LaBute's forte as a filmmaker must be viewed not for the quality of one movie, but for the group as a whole.

His latest (and 6th) film is called "Possession," a quiet little romance drama, adapted from A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel of the same name. The plot involves the intertwining of two unlikely couples separated by a hundred years. Aaron Eckhart, who's starred in the last four of LaBute's films, plays Roland Michell, an American studying in London. He is researching the poet laureate for Queen Victoria, Randolph Henry Ash from 1869 when he discovers a cache of love letters that appear to be from Ash to a little-known poetess named Christabel LaMotte, played by Jennifer Ehle,
Jeremy Northam
who looks remarkably like a young Meryl Streep. His research into this mysterious and unknown romance brings him to Maud Bailey, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, a rather straight-laced English academic researching LaMotte's life and work. Maud is initially dismissive of the discoveries, but the premise intrigues her, not to mention the chemistry she feels for the young American. As they collaborate on uncovering the romantic mysteries between the Victorian-era poets, they also discover romantic mysteries between themselves.

What's so delightful about this film, which is also a feature that will almost assuredly put off mainstream audiences, is that the theme of the film suggests that it's gripping drama to have a famous (and fictitious) poet in English literature carry on an affair with another poet, turning the world of Victorian poetry upside side. Add to this delightful tryst, the tension between the romantically dysfunctional couple of Roland and Maud, both of whom have vowed never to indulge in romance again, and you may have hoards of sex-starved librarians breaking down the turnstiles to see this film over and over. Oh, Shades of excitement!

Kidding aside, this film is so nice and sweet, that it almost seems like a departure for LaBute's tendency to portray more tumultuous emotional characteristics. Yet, taken as a part of his entire body of work, which is still small and growing, yet promising, despite one or two pitfalls along the way, "Possession" shows the lighter and more sophisticated side of the filmmaker, who isn't afraid to approach light-hearted subjects and still depict a sense of realism. I loved this film, but one day, I hope and expect that LaBute will break into the limelight with a more profound film that does more than portray human character. He'll make us ponder it.

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