Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow are two scholars whose paths cross during research in "Possession," based on A.S. Byatt's award-winning novel. (DAVID APPLEBY)
When his "In the Company of Men" debut was followed quickly by "Your Friends & Neighbors," LaBute acquired a reputation for icy misanthropy that not even the nominally cheerier "Nurse Betty" could dispel. With A.S. Byatt's novel, however, LaBute was taking on a distinctly different kind of material.
Literate, thrilling and philosophical, a ripping detective yarn as well as a pleasing romance, the Booker Prize-winning "Possession" was one of the most satisfying novels of the 1990s, blessed with a smashing premise expertly worked out.
That was the notion of following a pair of English scholars investigating the incendiary secret lives of two Victorian poets, and the present day academics find themselves more attracted to each other the deeper they dig into the past.
With the work of a crack production team (including production designer Luciana Arrighi and costume designer Jenny Beavan ) and luminously photographed by Jean Yves Escoffier, the film echoes the book in cutting back and forth between then and now. It reveals the raptures and difficulties of the Victorian couple (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle), as well as the exertions, romantic and otherwise, of the modern pair (Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart).
Although his sensibility has been exclusively contemporary up to now, LaBute (who shares screenwriting credit with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones) shows a surprising facility for the lush romance of the film's Victorian sections.
LaBute's natural coolness actually enhances these scenes, as his affinity for the delicacy and restraint of the period makes the characters' passion stand out that much more clearly.
Yet sure as his hand is in the historical segments, LaBute can't avoid a fatal mistake in the modern era: He's changed the male academic from a lower-class Brit to an American, a choice that upsets the novel's exquisite balance and shreds the fabric of the film, corrupting all of LaBute's good work and robbing it of the impact it would otherwise have.
Given that the role went to Eckhart, an actor who's been in each of his previous works, the feeling is inescapable that LaBute sacrificed the integrity of the piece so he could work with someone he felt comfortable with--though he claims the actor was not on his mind when he made the change.
Although fitting a 555-page book into an hour and 42 minutes of screen time entails a considerable amount of compression as well as the excising of the novel's philosophical underpinnings, overall, "Possession" hews to the outline of the book.
Roland Michell (Eckhart) is a scruffy American academic in London on a research fellowship studying the life and work of the revered Randolph Henry Ash, the poet laureate to Queen Victoria.
Sitting in a library and turning the pages of Ash's personal copy of a weighty philosophical tome to record the poet's marginalia, Michell comes across two drafts of a previously unknown and provocatively intimate letter Ash, celebrated for his marital fidelity, had written to an unknown woman.
Through some intrepid sleuthing, Michell determines that the likely recipient of the letter was Christabel LaMotte, a proto-feminist poet and writer of fairy tales who was also, most intriguingly of all, a lesbian.
Michell finds this out from the world's foremost authority on LaMotte, the svelte Dr. Maud Bailey (Paltrow being convincingly British one more time).
She's a gender studies specialist whose icy hauteur and ivory cameo good looks make her, in Byatt's words, "a most untouchable woman."
Naturally these two take an instant dislike to each other, something that, given Michell's partiality for oafish phrases like "how's it hanging," make perfect sense from Bailey's point of view.
Still, the American convinces her that the possibility of a relationship between Ash and LaMotte is worth investigating. If, as he typically puts it, "Mr. Fidelity had this Shakespearean dark-lady thing going on," it would astound the academic world. So off they go, following clues across England and trying to stay ahead of rival scholars who've gotten a whiff of the same story.
Simultaneous with the moderns investigating the past, "Possession" actually shows us what the Victorians were up to, and these are the film's best moments. Not only is the period atmosphere, with its conscious echoes of "The French Lieutenant's Woman," richly re-created, not only do Northam and Ehle fully inhabit their roles, but from their first verbal joustings--Ash says "you cut me, madam," and she replies, "I'm sorry, I only meant to scratch"--these characters have all the good lines. Leaving these segments for modern times is invariably painful.
That's especially the case because Eckhart's fish-out-of-water persona is such an awkward mistake. His character is too brusque, too insistently crude, too eager to say things like "I'm sort of a brush-and-flush kind of guy," to be anything more than a major irritant. It's as if LaBute couldn't bear to leave well enough alone, couldn't resist placing an intrusive mark on the proceedings.