Possession (review)

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Romantic Illusions

And so it comes time for me to reveal that I don’t hate all chick flicks. I just hate the dumb ones, which unfortunately fill 99 percent of the ecological niche for chick flicks. If it seems sometimes that I despise all movies in which smooches are major plot points, it’s only because I forget how romantic a movie can be when it’s done right. I truly do want to be swept away by a cute, angst-ridden guy and a pretty, wounded girl and the tenuous connection between them and the fate that keeps them apart until you can’t stand the suspense anymore… it’s just that I’m usually rolling my eyes and groaning when a movie tries to do that.

So I’m really delighted and surprised to say that not only did I not roll my eyes once during Possession, I found it utterly compelling and devastatingly romantic and I didn’t ever want it to end.
Also, I mustn’t forget to mention that Aaron Eckhart and Jeremy Northam are simply to die for. That’s right: Not one, but two delicious guys who are terribly passionate and are fascinated by things like poetry and aren’t gay.

It’s a fantasy, okay?

Not that this is a bad thing, but Neil LaBute musta got conked on the head or something, because Possession has about as much in common with his other films — like Nurse Betty and In the Company of Men — as Martha Stewart Living has with Popular Mechanics: Possession is as far along one end of the romantic-fantasy spectrum (the soft, mushy end) as his previous work is along the other (the hard, cynical end). Based on A.S. Byatt’s novel and lovingly adapted by LaBute, David Henry Hwang, and Laura Jones (Angela’s Ashes, Oscar and Lucinda), Possession tells two parallel love stories, one contemporary and one historical, both swooningly ardent and meant to be quaffed like a rich, heady red wine.

The modern story, oddly enough, is the one that could be called The Adventures of Byronic Man and Jane Austen Powers. Roland Michell (Eckhart: The Pledge, Erin Brockovich), an American in England on a fellowship at the British Museum, teams up with Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow: Shallow Hal, The Royal Tenenbaums) to solve a newly discovered mystery in the world of Victorian poetry, the study of which consumes both of them. Roland is one of those crunchy-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside guys who exist only in movies, one of those guys who thinks he’s tough and hardened against tenderness and attachment but really just needs a strong enough gal to punch through his hastily erected defenses against having his tender heart broken again. Plus, could he have a more poetic name? Maud has a reputation as a ball-buster, of course, but is it her problem if men are both threatened by and drawn to an opinionated woman who speaks her mind and yet is as charmingly fragile looking as Gwyneth Paltrow? She’s a wounded baby bird but she’s also strong and she needs a man who appreciates that and treats her like an equal. It’s sorta like Paltrow’s other venture into English-accent territory, Emma, with that same tasty love-ya, hate-ya, can’t-live-without-ya byplay that Emma and Mr. Knightley had.

(It can’t be a coincidence that both Paltrow and her Mr. Knightley, Jeremy Northam, are both in this movie. Can it?)

Meanwhile, in the 19th-century, famous poets Randolph Henry Ash (Northam: Gosford Park, Happy, Texas) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle: Sunshine, Wilde) are putting off hopping in the sack for as long as you can take it, mostly by writing letters to each other, which is about as impossibly romantic as a couple can ever hope to be, delaying the consummation of fervently held desires till the frustration threatens to drive you (and them) mad. If anticipation is the fuel for the fires of passion, then Possession burns brightly, yessiree.

There are other kinds of romance at play here, too, like that of old books and cobblestoned English streets and of obsession with work that you love. Imagine having all that and crunchy/gooey Aaron Eckhart too — sheer bliss.

Complete and utter balderdash, of course. But two hours of pretending ain’t half bad.

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