LaBute’s Possession not a thing to behold

I would love to have been there when director Neil LaBute pitched the concept for his latest project, Possession. I can just picture the sure-footed filmmaker of 1999’s energetic Nurse Betty trying to convince the studio execs that his latest idea would have an appeal to the masses.

“I got this great idea,” he must’ve said. “It’s about these two literary scholars who have no concept of how to function in a social setting. Then they find some hidden love letters between two long-dead poets and set off to uncover the biggest academic discovery of their age. And, as an added bonus, the audience gets to follow along to watch the two fall in love.”

I have no way to corroborate the evidence, but I’m sure that’s the way it happened.

What I can’t figure out, though, is how he actually got the idea to fly. He even got some big name actors to fill in the roles.

And it was a lucky move, too, because the performances in Possession are about the only thing worth paying to see.

Aaron Eckhart puts in a strong performance as Roland Mitchell, an ambitious American student on a fellowship to study the famous poet Randolph Henry Ash. The film takes place during the centenary exhibition of Ash’s work. The real fun begins when Roland swipes a few unfinished love letters in Ash’s writing that have lain dormant in an ancient library since before the author’s death.

What keeps Roland going initially is the fact that Ash had been known for his utter devotion to his wife, and the wrinkled love letters in the book may just prove that everything scholars had believed about Ash was wrong. Oh, yes – this doting husband had a mistress.

Along his quest to find out the scandalous truth to Ash’s love life, Roland stumbles across a love of his own. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Maud Bailey, a cold feminist who apparently is in dire need of some manly lovin’.

As the pair work to solve the mystery, they amass an impressive list of stolen historical documents, any one of which could be released to the public, securing the academic careers of either if they cared about such things.

Unfortunately, they don’t. So they keep going. Each little bit of information brings them closer together.

And as if one love story isn’t enough to please the audience, LaBute plugs in a second, mirroring the ups and downs of Ash’s love affair alongside that of Roland and Maud via flashbacks with Jeremy Northam playing Ash and Jennifer Ehle playing his mistress, Christabelle LaMotte.

I am willing to admit that maybe, maybe, some ladies might find this movie charming and sweet. Especially the older ones who regularly go for that frilly Victorian slosh.

I’ll even admit that Eckhart and Paltrow have real chemistry on screen. (Has Paltrow ever had poor chemistry with her romantic counterpart?) Not to mention the fact that English scholars will be lining up around the block when this sucker comes out on DVD.

Perhaps that’s all LaBute was hoping for when he gave his big pitch. But that doesn’t make things any easier because when the film’s finished, you’re still out five bucks.

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