Summary: Roland Mitchell is an American scholar, out of place in the British academic world. He is studying the life of the Victorian poet laureate, Randolph Henry Ash, when he happens upon two letters addressed to an unknown woman, whom Roland suspects to be a minor supposedly lesbian poetess, Christabel LaMotte. Roland begins to suspect a love affair between the two, that if discovered would change the way the world sees both the poets forever. Stealing the letters, Roland enlists the help of Maud Bailey, a fellow literary scholar and distant relative of Christabel LaMotte, to uncover the truth. Together, they become obsessed with the poets’ stories, even as they try to keep their research a secret from rival scholars. Possession is a tragic but ultimately hopeful tale.
My thoughts: Possession by Antonia S Byatt is one of my favourite love stories. The movie is different from the book in many ways, the most conspicuous being this whole new and jumpy version of Roland Mitchell in the form of an unavoidably American Aaron Eckhart. This adaptation only grazed the surface of what the story has to offer, and yet, I did like it.
Why? Two words, Jeremy Northam, previously known to me as a rather nice-looking Thomas More on The Tudors. He makes a wonderfully solemn Randolph Henry Ash and Jennifer Ehle is an unbridled beauty with a right-out-of-a-painting look. They are a perfect portrait of the two poets, who get much more ‘screen time’ here than in the book. In the film, you catch Ash and LaMotte impatiently awaiting the other’s letters, staring at each other with that tinge of a smile, making the sort of passionate love that cannot be contained in pages. Neil LaBute has created for them a vivid world that even Byatt did not manage to fully build with her prose. When Randolph Henry Ash talks with that rich voice of his, you want to stop and listen, and the Christabel LaMotte of the movie makes it hard for you to look away from the screen. They awaken the romantic in you. You want them to live happily ever after, which makes it so much harder when they don’t.
One of Ash and LaMotte’s very first meetings,
“It surprises me, Madam, that a lady, who lives as quietly as you do, would be aware of my modest success.”
“Oh, I am very aware the papers herald you weekly. It is you, however, who surprise me.”
“And why is that?”
“Judging from your work, I’m surprised you would even acknowledge my existence. Or any woman’s, for that matter, since you show us such small regard on the page.”
“You’ve cut me, Madam.”
“I’m sorry. I only meant to scratch.”
The same cannot be said for Maud and Roland, even though the tension between them is palpable. In the book, Maud is a woman who has been trapped by her own beauty, who has cocooned herself in an attempt to fight men’s need to possess her. Roland’s struggle is to free her from the uncanny figurative bell jar, that curiously features on the cover of the book. In the movie, it is often difficult to make out what, if anything, lies beyond Paltrow’s stony composure. Maud and Roland’s on-screen relationship leaves something to be desired. But Possession is more than the two pairs of lovers. It is about the precarious nature of all relationships, about the time it takes for one to collapse and the destruction even momentary happiness leaves in its wake. It is about unrequited passions and unsaid promises, and one of its best played characters is that of Christabel’s old lover, Blanche.
The movie is nowhere near subtle. It is a satirical look at the literary world with its grotesquely one-sided cast of academicians. They all fight for recognition, poring over dead writers’ lives with a voyeuristic greed and no concern for privacy or emotion. A character I really missed from the book was Leonara Stern, the feminist scholar, who is the living embodiment of wishful conclusions. Often enough to cause alarm, the drama threatens to become a mawkish display that does seem odd in this century, and yet, suited to a world of past-diggers. It begs to be made fun of. In the movie, unlike the book, it is unclear whether the farce is intentional.
Possession must have been a difficult book to adapt. So much of its beauty and intellect lies in its linguistic nuances. The film is a really good effort, with moments I want to watch over and over, scenes I am so glad I now have visuals for. But to me it was just a three star adaptation of a five star book. Go for it if you have read the book or if you like romance of every kind. Or you can simply watch it, like me, for a swoonful of Victorian charm.