Posession (2002)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

In Possession, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Maud Bailey, an uptight, bookish poetry professor who is an expert on a little-known Victorian poet name Christabel LaMotte, who also happens to be one of her ancestors. She encounters Roland Michell, a young American academic who, in his work for a stuffy professor, is knowledgeable about a famous poet named Ashe.

Roland claims to have found evidence that Ashe and Christabel had a secret affair way back when. Maud disbelieves it. But when the two start to follow the clues, they discover there is much about their beloved poets that they never before suspected. And, of course, they discover quite a bit about themselves along the way.

Can love be far behind? Make a wild guess.

Unfortunately for the audience, the discoveries on the path of this mystery all come easily and predictably. The fun of a good mystery is in trying to put the pieces together, in puzzling over red herrings, and in the risk of finding the clues in the first place. Maud and Roland uncover an ancient mystery without so much as breaking a sweat.

Further, the figures of mystery, Ashe and Christabel, who are seen in several flashbacks, are not interesting in the least. Ashe is all passion, melancholy, and harlequin romance, while Christabel meddles with a lesbian partner until “the right man comes along” and suddenly she’s ready to have her bodice tenderly undone before a raging fire. Cliches are as abundant in the imagery as they are in the painfully sentimental poetry. We never get enough information to understand why the two poets fall in love. Their poetry sounds bland. Their longing silences and intense gazes are the stuff of romance parody. And, as one other critic noted, Ehle seems to be borrowing her bursting-with-love smiles from Meryl Streep. I wanted to reach into the movie, grab those love letters, and read them for myself so that I wouldn’t have to guess at why Roland and Maud are so intoxicated by them. Are they really that bored? Isn’t there something more compelling in those libraries they frequent?.

You might think that the elaborate and dusty manors, the halls of knowledge, and the English countryside would provide us with engaging imagery. Sure, the country is beautiful, but the cinematographer does nothing unique in filming this stuff. It’s just, well, countryside. Like the rest of the film, the right ingredients are there, but the magic never happens.

And then there are Maud and Roland themselves. They remain interesting only because of their good looks, casual joshing, and a variety of outfits that look newly purchased from a mail-order service for Lit Majors. Paltrow models some very English turtleneck sweaters… so English they must have been purchased at a tourist trap… and an attractive scarf. Eckhart wears a loose fitting Saturday sweater and a rougish leather coat, making sure his hair is touseled just so, and that he’s unshaven but not TOO unshaven. Unable to find much interesting about the woman he is following, he becomes quite preoccupied with her hair, which is quite symbolically bound up.

Yep. It’s the old “let down your hair” routine. It becomes the film’s only real symbol. We know it will come undone, and sure enough, it does. For instructions in how to work with a woman’s hair and symbolism, watch The Piano, where it had meaning that dealt with more than just a reserved personality. It became a symbol of the environment, a symbol for private thoughts, a symbol for potential, and a knotted record of a painful past. Here, it’s as obvious as the poetry. It’s just a puzzle which, with the right combination of flowery phrases, will come undone accompanying the long-awaited gasps of inevitable swooning.

Imagine sitting in a library and eavesdropping as two people, passionate about their work, read a manuscript together. They “ooh” and they “ahh.” But you never really get to understand why they are so thrilled. You aren’t exposed to the work enough to understand why these poets are compelling. Then the two students, stirred up, start having a nervous conversation about their relationship. But we do not feel tension, because we hardly know anything about them. Then they start kissing. Cue the music. Sure, they’re good kissers, but as far as we know there is nothing at stake. Are they breaking free from some dark past? Are they breaking a rule? What are they risking?

In all great romances, something is lost and something is gained. In this one, we don’t get enough of either. Instead, we get Eckhart, showing promise as a leading man and Paltrow showing glimmers of the great actress that she can indeed be. But chemistry requires detail, complexity, pasts and promising futures. These characters, even as they pursue a mystery that seems relatively dull to me, remain mysterious themselves. I don’t get enough of them, and I get far too much of the cheesy, swoony period piece.

And further, while some attention is given to the suffering of Ashe’s wife while he stokes the fires of a raging extramarital affair, in the end it is the affair that gets all the glory. We are led to smile nostalgically about his dalliance, not to contemplate the cost of his unfaithfulness. We are not allowed to think about the fact that he cannot be trusted. And the only tragedy along the way comes about not because of the sin, but because of the unhealthy obsession of a supporting character.

Thus, a lie is told. The lovers are dressed up in the costume of classical romantic love, but underneath, they are a lying cheating adulterers more interested in themselves than in others.

I’m not even going to talk about the extraneous, buffoonish supporting characters who are supposed to be “villains”. They’re a distraction, a flimsy plot device, existing only to provide tension and a reason for Eckhart to get off his butt, break into a run, and throw a punch before it’s over. It’s a desperate attempt to get some adrenalin flowing near the end of the film.

I was surprised to find Neil Labute capable of a dull movie, after his wickedly entertaining Nurse Betty and the troublingly truthful In the Company of Men. Perhaps he is compelling when he is showing you how low human beings can be. Here, he takes what is a story of low behavior and instead romanticizes it. I think, finding himself bound to sentiment, he lost interest in the material. Thus, so do we. All the materials are there, but the appropriate care in arranging them is not given, and thus it never catches fire.

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