Dir: Neil LaBute. US. 2002. 103 mins.
An extraordinary choice of director lies at the heart of Possession, a story of rapturous Victorian romance told by a film-maker, Neil LaBute, best known for his razor-tongued and cynical comedies about contemporary American sexual mores. Critical response will depend on whether his presence behind the camera is seen as a bold and imaginative stroke or a terrible error of judgement. A classy cast, astute marketing and likely supportive reviews should attract upscale audiences of a literary bent when Possession opens on limited release in the US this week. But when it is released by Warner Bros in the UK on 25 Oct, critics - like the British characters in the film - may well react less warmly to the Yank who comes to trample on their home turf.
A working-class Brit in AS Byatt's 1990, Booker Prize-winning novel, Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart, LaBute's regular lead) is now a brash American researcher in London. His subject: the (fictitious) Victorian Poet Laureate Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), famed as a staid stuffed shirt whose uxorial devotion is about to be commemorated in a new exhibition of love poems to his wife.
However, Roland discovers an ardent letter from Ash to an obscure woman poet, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), who had been always assumed to be a lesbian bluestocking. Stealing the document, he turns for help to a British academic, frosty feminist Maud Bailey (Gywneth Patrow), who is writing a book on LaMotte and is also one of her distant descendants.
At the crumbling country house of Maud's eccentric relations, the scholars discover more evidence of a clandestine affair, before travelling on to Whitby in northern England, where they reluctantly share a bed in the very room where the poets consummated their passion. Ultimately the trail leads to northern France, where the pregnant LaMotte took refuge.
It turns out that, far from being sexually constipated, the Victorians launch boldly into a forbidden affair. By contrast, with no external obstacles in their way, their neurotic modern counterparts are endlessly analytical and self-aware about love and sex - but find these things much easier to talk about than to engage in. LaBute's influence is most noticeable in the bedroom scene, in which their tentative attraction turns on a sixpence into mutual suspicion.
The script has fun at the expense of the culture industry, which sells yesterday's love poetry for millions at Sotheby's and is peopled by cut-throat academics with hidden agendas. These are led by a predatory professor from New Mexico (Trevor Eve) who wants the letters for his own university - a subplot which climaxes in a silly graveside robbery. Here, as in the film generally, it feels as if Byatt's sophisticated intellectual themes have been pruned back in favour of a highbrow detective thriller.
The main difficulty comes in juggling the time strands and main storylines. LaBute uses some elegantly simple formal devices to move between the two parallel romances, but like similarly structured movies - The French Lieutenant's Woman or The Weight Of Water - the abrupt lurches of mood and uneven performances prove more distracting than illuminating.
Possession has an intimate but polished look, and Gabriel Yared's lush score, with its occasional echoes of Bernard Herrmann, adds a yearning, romantic touch. But this looks very much like LaBute's English Heritage movie, not helped by a constant succession of picturesque buildings and landscapes and the odd false note.
Prod co: Baltimore/Spring Creek Pictures
US dist/int'l sales: Focus Films
Exec prod: David Barron, Len Amato
Prods: Paula Weinstein, Barry Levinson
Scr: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, LaBute, based on the novel by AS Byatt
Cinematography: Jean-Yves Escoffier
Prod des: Luciana Arrighi
Ed: Claire Simpson
Music: Gabriel Yared
Main cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Northam, lena Headey, Tom Hollander, Trevor Eve