[Screen It]

(2002) (Aaron Eckhart, Gwyneth Paltrow) (PG-13)

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Drama: Two contemporary literary scholars travel in the footsteps of two Victorian poets and end up falling under their own romantic spell while trying to discover what happened to their 19th century counterparts and their secret romance.
Roland Michell (AARON ECKHART) is an American literary scholar working in London as a research assistant for Professor James Blackadder (TOM HICKEY). With it being the centennial celebration of Randolph Henry Ash (JEREMY NORTHAM), the poet laureate for Queen Victoria, Roland is researching the love letters from the reportedly faithful man to his wife Ellen (HOLLY AIRD).

He gets the idea, however, that Ash's letters weren't written to his wife, but instead to fellow Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte (JENNIFER EHLE). Needing more information, Roland goes to visit stuffy British academic Maud Bailey (GWYNETH PALTROW) who's been doing her own research on LaMotte who was a distant relative of hers.

Maud believes that Roland's theory is rubbish, particularly since she knows of Christabel's lesbian lover, Blanche Glover (LENA HEADEY). Nevertheless, she eventually but reluctantly decides to assist him in his literary detective work, and the two end up finding more letters that begin to confirm Roland's theory.

As they continue their work and try to circumvent Maud's former boyfriend, Fergus Wolff (TOBY STEPHENS), from beating them to the punch of getting to the bottom of this potential historical scandal, they begin to develop feelings for each other, much like Ash and LaMotte who we see in various flashbacks that parallel the contemporary story.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Having grown up in the capital of the Confederacy, attended college where Colonial America flourished and currently residing in the suburbs of our nation's capital where I formerly worked in the Capitol building, I've been surrounded by history all of my life. It's amazing to think that where one might visit or walk, all sorts of people - historically famous and anonymous - once tread and lived their lives centuries ago.

Of course, without audio, film or TV footage and lacking a time machine, the only way to learn about those long dead people is through various letters and writings they or others penned. Even so, many such records are incomplete, missing or long since destroyed, thus leaving historians with the task of filling in the blanks in their "detective" work.

Although probably less likely due to prodigious record keeping, the same could also hold true in the future. For instance, if future historians unearthed the work of filmmaker Neal LaBute but found nothing after 2001, they'd probably come to the conclusion that the writer/director was a cynical sort who repeatedly showed the meanness and callowness of people in films such as 'In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors" and "Nurse Betty."

Little would they know, however, that he would have a softer side and would go on to direct the superb romantic drama, "Possession," a film about 21st century literary scholars who investigate the lives of two 19th century Victorian poets.

Perhaps speaking from his more compassionate, feminine side, the film emulates the theme and aura of many a romantic novel as well as the story structure of parallel time line films such as "The French Lieutenant's Woman."

Based on A.S. Byatt' 1990 novel of the same name, LaBute and fellow screenwriters David Henry Hwang ("Golden Gate," "M. Butterfly) and Laura Jones ("Angela's Ashes," "Oscar and Lucinda") tell the tale of a British academic and an American literary scholar who develop romantic feelings for each other while investigating and then following the actual paths and romance of their 19th century counterparts.

Like the 1981 Meryl Streep film, this one alternates between the two would-be romantic couples as the contemporary one's literary detective work reveals more facts about the past one. Based on all of that, it's probably not difficult to discern that this is a "chick flick," albeit a mature and well-made one that's fortunately - and wisely - accessible enough to men that it shouldn't send them fleeing from the theaters in search of a football game.

That said, those looking for a fast-moving or intricate plot are likely to be a bit disappointed. In fact, one complaint that could be made about the film is that its pacing is methodical at best when not downright slow. Then there's the fact that it takes a while for the period plot to kick in with enough material to make it of note, let alone come across as compelling.

Filming a story about literary scholars doing historical research and digging up and then reading written materials obviously has its inherent limitations and drawbacks. Yet, while nothing of great consequence beyond that of the heart transpires in either plot, the way in which LaBute and company have fashioned the script, written some terrific dialogue and occasionally have the characters crossing paths through locales that bridge the two times makes the overall effort more than worthwhile.

The performances, however, are what really sell the effort and make it work so well. While Holly Aird ("Dreaming of Joseph Lees," "The Theory of Flight"), Lena Headey ("Gossip," "Mrs. Dalloway") and Toby Stephens ("Space Cowboys," "Cousin Bette") show up in supporting roles - the latter as the story's antagonist in terms of the scholars reaching their goal - the four leads are obviously the focal points of the story and all are terrific.

Playing the would-be contemporary lovers and unlikely accomplices are Gwyneth Paltrow ("Shallow Hal," "The Royal Tenenbaums") and Aaron Eckhart ("The Pledge," "Erin Brockovich"). The latter, a standard LaBute player, is so natural and good in the role that he continues to support my belief that he's one of the best under appreciated actors working today. Paltrow is also good playing the standard stuffy Brit who eventually melts a bit under Eckhart's American character influence.

Jeremy Northam ("Gosford Park," "Enigma") and Jennifer Ehle ("Sunshine," "Paradise Road") embody the period lovers and end up getting the meatier and more interesting character bits as the story wears on and develops more for them. Northam plays the standard man of wealth whose obsession overrides his more usual staid and proper demeanor. It's Ehle, however, who really shines in her role as the poet who leaves her lesbian lover for Ash but then isn't sure how to proceed with their affair.

Once again examining human relationships as he's always done - this time of past and present varieties - LaBute has fashioned an engaging romantic drama - but without his usual venomous behavioral qualities - that becomes increasingly better as it unfolds across parallel time lines and love affairs. "Possession" rates as a solid 7 out of 10.

Reviewed July 19, 2002 / Posted August 16, 2002

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