“They say that women change. ‘Tis so, but you are ever constant.” So rhapsodizes Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), composing a letter to his lover, fellow poet Christabel La Motte (Jennifer Ehle), as he strides across a lovely, sun-kissed field, walking stick in hand.
‘Tis the opening scene in Possession. Based on A.S. Byatt’s popular 1990 novel, Neil LaBute’s movie parallels Ash and Christabel’s brief, thrilling romance of 1859, with that of two scholars who find their love letters, some 140 years later (with intimate, precious turns of phrases: “I am a creature of my pen; my pen is the best part of me”). At first, Christabel expert Maud (Gwyneth Paltrow, playing British, again) rejects the idea that her girl would have strayed from her companion, a painter named Blanche (Lena Headey), at least until Blanche’s suicide. The Ash scholar, a brash American (is there any other kind?) named Roland (Aaron Eckhart), thinks otherwise. Arriving on Maud’s doorstep with a couple of Ash’s undiscovered letters, pilfered from the London Library (“I sort of stole them”), Roland suggests that they go digging. Maud can’t resist. Soon, as the academics literally follow their subjects’ footsteps (traveling to their trysting spot, sleeping in their trysting bed), they too fall in love.
This outline might sound a little mushy for Neil LaBute, whose In the Company of Men (1997), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998), and Nurse Betty (2000) all deal, in various ways, with infidelity, deception, grief, and meanness. But Possession, as its title suggests, is exactly in line with these prior investigations, looking at power and desire more than love, or perhaps more accurately, looking at the ways that power and desire are camouflaged as love. Not only is Christabel already involved when she meets Ash, so is he. In fact, he’s married when he meets Christabel, though not especially happily; the Mrs. (Holly Aird) is evidently a bit chilly. Moreover, Maud is herself otherwise attached, to another fellow scholar, Fergus (Toby Stephens), who is, admittedly, a bit creepy on first look.
More interestingly, the supposed “romance” throughout Possession is darker, more prickly, than that first sunny field shot might lead you to expect. And the film makes sure — by cutting between the two evolving relationships, between eras — to illustrate that the ostensibly “modern” moment is at least as constrained and difficult as the earlier one when it comes to gender roles and sexual desires. Consider, for starters, Ash’s generalization that “women” are inconstant (much as it is ostensibly contradicted by his experience with his much-adored lover). A similar sentiment might be articulated by Jason Patric’s Cary, the violent misogynist in Your Friends & Neighbors, though he’d likely use much uglier language.
But ignorant-guy stereotypes are easy targets (and brutal as Cary is, his bluntness is also vaguely less disturbing than Ben Stiller’s terminally fuming Jerry or even Eckhart’s self-deluding Barry). Possession takes a somewhat trickier route, focusing on the anxieties that are barely concealed by such fronting. Art, of course, is one means of fronting, one not immediately available to most of LaBute’s other characters (unless you consider murder an art, as did Morgan Freeman’s elegant hitman in Nurse Betty). Here, Ash uses his art to work out his emotional life, to the point that he goes down in history best known for a series of later-period love poems, ostensibly dedicated to his wife; these initially lead Roland and Maud to assume he could never be involved in a secret affair, before they piece it together.
Scenes showing Ash’s interactions with Christabel suggest that she is the object of his aesthetic as well as corporeal passions. She appears to him as the very embodiment of what the Victorians called “The Woman Question,” an independent-minded, vivacious, and sexy intellectual, reminiscent of writers like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Austen, the Brontes, and Eliza Lynn Linton, whose work addressed social inequalities and changing prospects in frank and often brilliant ways. Still, much like her counterparts today, Christabel must contend with a presumption of male privilege. As she puts it to Ash on their first meeting, “You show us such small regard on the page.” Ash responds to his about-to-be lover with his own self-starring mini-drama: “You cut me, madam.” And she comes back with wit that suggests his game is wasted: “I only meant to scratch.”
He’s smitten. And who wouldn’t be? Christabel is a remarkable character, seductive and endearing, vaguely recalling the resilient and inventive Betty (Renée Zellweger), but at the same time, more self-possessed. Her decision to deceive Blanche is, we might guess, not taken easily, and when she does confess her secret, the results are devastating. That said, she does take the decision, and the movie doesn’t spend too much time with the distraught Blanche, which may say as much about viewer/reader desires as about anything else — the film focuses on the illicit romance, as do the primary readers in the film, Maud and Roland.
And this is Possession‘s most notably odd tack, its focus on the academics, that is, people who read for a living. This underscores that the film is more about reading — as a process of self-discovery and connecting — than about its frankly standard-issue love stories. Like the film’s readers/viewers, Maud and Roland come with their own agendas, at first to support their ideas about “their” poets, then to find something “new” to advance their careers, and eventually, to see in Ash and Christabel a reflection of their own evolving needs, to see themselves, to have their divergent understandings of poetic “love” affirmed (she believes; no surprise, he does not, looking instead to prove that “Mr. Perfect Husband had this Shakespearean Dark Lady thing going”).
Once they’re caught up in the process, they start to doubt their abilities, not only their ostensible investigative skills, but more importantly, their analytical facilities. And that means, they aren’t reading each other well either. Maud does what she can not to fall for her coarse yank companion (“We came to investigate them, not us”), but she gives in at last. Shades of Christabel, describing her infatuation: “Nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.” They’re alone in the very seaside room where their subjects did their own consummating. And so, they are consumed and consummate.
In another movie, this would be (or be leading to) the happy ending. Here, however, there’s more excavating to do, more pressing of your issues, whwatever they may be. When, in the AM, Roland (a self-described “brush and flush kind of guy”) inevitably thinks better of their one night, Maud is put out, flinging his I-can’t-commit attitude right back at him, whining, “We’re all doomed to just tear each other apart.” Roland hits back, using her own earlier confession against her: “So this is the icy pull back part of it?” No, this is the expected moment of revelation (less subtly rendered than in other LaBute films). Roland’s insistence on not “understanding” her appears to be his version of male privilege. Vulnerability is bad, fulfillment of desire is good, relationships are ever fraught. And once Gwyneth’s eyes start welling up, his cause is surely lost.
Still, there’s something amiss in this romance, which almost saves it (really, the mushy stuff is not so interesting, even if it does involve Paltrow in pert outfits). The Victorian lovers have to deal with pregnancy, suicide, and above all, preserving appearances. Maud and Roland are more immediately faced with unanswerable questions: they have fewer obvious structures to follow (or fall back on) and, apparently, more chances to screw up (though, to be fair, Ash and Christabel’s own screw ups are considerable, however well intentioned and constrained their actions).
The film’s meticulous formalism (it’s beautifully shot by Jean Yves Escoffier) allows you, dear reader, to feel some distance, perhaps, some self-possession. See, for instance, the composition when Maud and Roland walk on the beach and assure one another they don’t want a “relationship,” her face in close up, his bent figure pushed to the back of the frame. In reading such a rich image, you may find what you’re looking for — and several reviewers have found the film’s seeming mainstreamness more palatable than the filmmaker’s earlier crisp cruelty. Such a response, however, overlooks the essential cruelty of romance — as a genre, a cultural myth, a mainstream ideal.
While the plot of Possession concerns yearning and fervor, its tone is provocatively detached; LaBute calls it “emotional archeology.” The major discovery may be that gender roles and sexual appetites, then and now, are functions of social orders, expectations and needs. These orders don’t change much. The question is: do readers?