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Publish or perish: It's a race for the truth in 'Possession'

Friday, August 30, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

A Victorian mystery set in the present, a love story set in the past. And vice versa. Take your pick. Might as well take all four, since that's what you get in "Possession."


RATING: PG-13 for sexuality and adult themes.

PLAYERS: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam>

DIRECTOR: Neil LaBute.


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Director Neil LaBute's elegant offering at hand is a two-times-two-tiered drama involving that most esoteric breed of detectives -- literary ones -- working in London. The gung-ho American researcher (Aaron Eckhart) is an expert in Victorian poet Randolph Ash. The cynical Brit (Gwyneth Paltrow) specializes in one of Ash's lesser-known contemporaries, Christabel LaMotte.

The pieces of their separate poetic puzzles have no apparent connection -- until Eckhart comes into possession of two hitherto undiscovered love letters that suggest a tie. If the mutually suspicious academics can become allies, maybe they can prove or disprove a complex historical romance -- while trying to avoid one between their 21st-century selves.

This puzzle they're in possession of takes increasing possession of them as they retrace the 19th-century footsteps of their subjects -- both of whom did everything possible to cover up their tracks. Ash (Jeremy Northam) was by all accounts the most devoted of husbands; La-Motte (Jennifer Ehle) had no known affair except with a female friend -- a jealous one, it turns out.

You'd think Eckhart and Paltrow would at least have this investigation to themselves, but no! For Clint or Arnold, it's kill or be killed. For Aaron and Gwyneth, it's publish or perish. Same difference: When a set of villainous rival scholars, led by the aptly named Fergus Wolff (Toby Stephens), get wind of this biographical coup-in-the-making, they turn it into a race to see who finds -- and plays -- the last card.

Actually, all the cards are fascinating here, thanks to the screenplay by Lara Jones ("Oscar and Lucinda") and LaBute, derived from A.S. Byatt's novel. It seems to have been problematic in the writing and rewriting (with lots of postponements in the releasing), and there are some dangerous flirtations with soap opera toward the end. But there is also much beauty in the dialogue.

"You cut me, madam," Ash tells LaMotte at their first feisty meeting.

"I only meant to scratch," she replies sweetly.

Director LaBute ("Your Friends and Neighbors," "In the Company of Men," "Nurse Betty") has honed his edgy style with carefully interwoven juxtapositions of the past and present narratives. Only as the bits and pieces of documentary information are revealed do we see those scenes -- and the plot -- unfold.

Most important, "Possession" is possessed of an excellent quartet of performances from all the principals. Eckhart and Paltrow evince a solid, credible low-key intensity in office and bedroom alike. Northam and Ehle provide no more or fewer "period" affectations than needed in the process of adorning their Victorian skeletons with real flesh and blood.

"I am a creature of my pen -- my pen is the best part of me," declares the poet. But it's also the part that gets him in trouble with the firm conviction that "it is imperative to appear respectable to the world."

That, of course, is the fatal flaw of all hypocrites. Christabel's more soulful concern is to find out "if there's an 'us' in you and me" -- and if her fear of being abandoned is justified.

Yes and yes. Twas ever thus.

Thank God there was no e-mail in those days. Without good old-fashioned snail-mail with postage stamps, there'd be no sleuthing let alone solution of this lovely mystery.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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