Films based on esteemed literary works can either delight or disappoint us, and "Possession," Neil LaBute's adaptation of the A.S. Byatt novel about love and detection in the groves of British academe is a polished, luscious-looking misfire. LaBute's film takes Byatt's ingeniously imagined novel -- a double tale of a romance between two modern English literary researchers (played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart) who fall in love while uncovering a similar affair between two great 19th-century British poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) -- and turns it into a gorgeous, somnolent show that is splendidly mummified and thoroughly unsurprising.
The story follows the adventures of Roland Mitchell (Eckhart), an ambitious but slightly threadbare young scholar working for crusty Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) in a collection devoted to (fictitious) 19th century poet Randolph Henry Ash. Roland discovers and steals a letter which suggests that Ash, hitherto famed as an exemplary family man, had a secret erotic life.
Soon, Roland's investigations lead him to a startling suspicion: that Ash's secret correspondent was Christabel La Motte, another (equally fictitious) great poet, hitherto considered a probable lesbian and trailblazing feminist icon. Aided by his fellow scholar (and Christabel's grand-niece), Maud Bailey (Paltrow), a feminist not initially anxious to unveil her grand-aunt as a practicing heterosexual, Roland follows the poetic couple's tracks and unearths more letters and clues, all the while a step ahead of rival Ash researchers: the crass and greedy Cropper (Trevor Eve) and his duplicitous aide (and Maud's ex-lover) Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens).
Adaptation is an art, and LaBute ("Nurse Betty") lacks the right artfulness here. Working with respect but not much inspiration, he sacrifices or overly condenses much of what really made "Possession" a surprise best-seller -- its deliciously wry and learned unveiling of the petty scandals and intrigues of the academic world and its wondrous pastiches of 19th century poems and letters -- and replaces it with an attempt at grand movie romance. Acres of sylvan scenery and middle shots of the dazzling Paltrow and hunky Eckhart are juxtaposed with shots of suave Northam and the radiant Ehle. (Ehle looks so much here like Meryl Streep in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" that the movie almost suggests visual plagiarism.)
There's no denying that "Possession" looks great. French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier (Leon Carax's main collaborator and also the photographer of "Nurse Betty") shot the panoramas of rural Britain and modern London and Paris. The production design is by Luciana Arrighi of "Howard's End." But it's a waste of splendid resources, not the least being star Paltrow, the British countryside and the novel itself -- and some of its strategies are dubious.
The lithe, uncommonly sparkly Paltrow may be a convincing, delightful Brit, as she was in "Emma," but LaBute's decision to change Roland from a put-upon, working-class Briton to a brash, sexy young American (well enough handled by Eckhart) is too incongruous. It's hard to believe the gingerness of Roland and Maud starting their affair, harder still to accept the relative alacrity with which Randolph and Christabel fall into theirs.
Like too many recent filmmakers working with highly literary books, LaBute tries too hard to be cinematic. Yet, since one of the major themes of the story is the way you can detect a writer's private life and feelings in their works, it's a mistake to so seldom quote the Ash and LaMotte poetry (which Byatt produced for her novel in wondrous profusion). "Possession" needs the author's voice, or a narrator. The best novel adaptations are usually those that best preserve the tone flavor and voice of the book: David Lean's Charles Dickens films, and Stanley Kubrick's adaptations of Nabokov's "Lolita" and Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange."
I think a brilliant film could have been made from "Possession" using the same cast as this one, but with Tom Stoppard (the obvious choice) as screenwriter. LaBute, who can be very rough on American culture, may be too much in love with British sophistication and British literature -- and even Paltrow and Eckhart -- to do this film justice. "Possession" needs a sharp eye, a wicked tongue, less reverence and much more of its author's voice.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Neil LaBute; written by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, LaBute, based on the novel by A.S. (Antonia) Byatt; photographed by Jean Yves Escoffier; edited by Claire Simpson; production designed by Luciana Arrighi; costumes designed by Jenny Bevan; music by Gabriel Yared; produced by Paula Weinstein, Barry Levinson. A Focus Features release; opens Friday, Aug. 16. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexuality and some thematic elements).
Maud Bailey -- Gwyneth Paltrow
Roland Mitchell -- Aaron Eckhart
Randolph Henry Ash -- Jeremy Northam
Christabel LaMotte -- Jennifer Ehle
Blanche Glover -- Lena Headey
Fergus Wolfe -- Toby Stephens
Sir George -- Graham Crowden Lady Bailey -- Anna Massey
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times