Directed: Neil LaBute
Written: David Henry Hwang
The only thing I can think of that can adequately explain the critical drubbing this film received upon release is the absolute difficulty in taking something so monumental as A.S Byatt's novel and transforming it into a film for modern audiences used to much faster-paced fare.
The novel is huge, both in actual size and thematically, and there are many aspects of it that are simply not cinematic. To adapt is to transform a text for the cinematic medium. I think that, all things considered, the writers have not done too bad a job here. (I know there's a whole world of A.S Byatt fans out there disagreeing with me right now...)
Roland (Aaron Eckhart) is a scholar of Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), former poet laureate who was famed for his fanatical devotion to his wife. During the course of his research Roland uncovers proof of an infidelity, and goes on a hunt to find out who the woman may have been. A series of historical coincidences leads him to believe the woman is lesbian poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). He teams up with sceptical LaMotte scholar and Christabel's descendent Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) to find out the truth.
Told in a series of flashbacks, the Ash/LaMotte affair is gradually revealed. The modern day scholars are swept up in tracing the path of a past love, only to find themselves becoming inevitably attracted to each other in the process.
To be fair to the critics, I have to agree that the excising of much of the character's motivations from the screenplay does confuse the issue. We really don't understand Roland's emotional detachment (he explains it in the film merely as having been hurt before), Maud's coldness or the phenomenal literary and personal significance of the discovery that the film's narrative centres around. We are required to take these things on faith, and sometimes it seems too much to ask.
From a lesbian perspective, the film doesn't fare too well either. One more dead lesbian onscreen (LaMotte's distraught partner played by Lena Headey), one more woman "rescued" from her alternative sexuality. These thoughts did go through my mind. However, during the course of the film I gradually dismissed my concerns. If the filmmakers (and the author herself) would have just stopped using the word "lesbian" all the time this would be fine. Christabel does not fit this or any other category. She is a woman with passions, who chooses to follow rather than repress her desires whatever form they take, and this is as refreshing a view of that as I've ever seen in a period film.
What we get is a fascinating reversal of what we usually see in romantic fiction. This point in our history is supposed to be a time of sexual freedom, but that freedom is buried underneath a mountain of sexual politics. The Victorian-era was supposed to be repressed, but the natural secrecy of the time provided the perfect cover for acting out one's wildest passions. Here the Victorian lovers provide all the sensuality and detail that their modern day counterparts lack, thus showing them up as cold, unfulfilled human beings. They turn to love as the only excuse for doing the inexcuseable, which is to betray their "spouses" and embark on their life's passion.
Christabel is Jennifer Ehle's second feisty, warm and utterly sensual period portrayal, having imbued Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice with so much energy and life in the popular 1996 BBC remake. Though she is in danger of being typecast as a corset-wearer, she is the picture of what I imagine a Victorian-era independent woman should be like; buxom, luscious and witty, rather than tight-lipped and thin-waisted as much of film history would have us believe.
By contrast, Gwyneth Paltrow sheds her usual smugness and overt sexuality for the role of a modern day repressed scholar of poetry. Maud is only just figuring out that immersing her life in work, without feeling any of the romance of what she is studying, is missing half the point. As the film unravels so does Maud, emerging tentatively from her shell rather like a turtle sticking out it's neck, expecting to be repeatedly attacked.
An ex-lover of Maud's refers to her as the "ball-breaker", presumably because she believes in all the feminist ideology she has gained through Women's Studies scholarship. I believe we're meant to suspect her studies of a lesbian poet have contributed to her obvious distrust of men. I was glad to see this pointless stereotype thrown out quite early in the film. Maud, like Christabel, is independent yet trapped; Maud by her own boundaries and insecurities, and Christabel by the times in which she lives and the values/guilt that imposes upon her.
There isn't a lot of lesbian material here to enjoy, except for the pure pleasure of watching Jennifer Ehle. A sexually ambiguous, tortured soul and free thinker, Christabel LaMotte will always be one of my favourite literary characters. Now, thanks to Ehle, she has graduated into one of my favourite cinematic heroines. Utterly romantic and extremely sensual, Possession is for people who like their onscreen romances to be complex and intelligent. Unfortunately for some people, especially for people with no love of literature or Gwyneth Paltrow, that could translate into boring.