Monday, April 1, 2013
Possession (2002) *
Director: Neil La Bute
Screenplay: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil La Bute, from the novel by AS Byatt
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey, Holly Aird, Toby Stephens, Trevor Eve, Graham Crowden, Anna Massey
Having never read the Booker Prize-winning novel upon which this is based, nor seen any of LaBute's other films, I have no idea how valid the two most generally-offered criticisms of this film are: that it is a simplistic travesty of the former, and so self-consciously different from the rest of the latter as to make sense only as a stylistic experiment, with no real heart or any other raison d'etre.
The second criticism sounds a bit shabby to me - the intrinsic absurdity of auteurism finally coming back to bite the auteur in the ass - and anyway, when the remake of The Wicker Man arrived the debate became a degree less important anyway.
But what seems to me the film's biggest narrative fault may well be a consequence of the first complaint, that being the way that a literary discovery that is nothing short of monumental, but which has gone completely unsuspected for a century, is stumbled upon accidentally, and then the subsequent investigation casually produces reams of corroborative evidence from dozens of sources and locations in at least two countries, all of which has somehow passed over the heads of previous scholars, even as it was passing under their noses.
That aside, the film is a careful and sincere piece which blends a story about 21st century academics investigating a Victorian literary romance with a recreation of the romance itself, stocked with enough interesting roles to keep the wolf from the door of most of Britain's Jane Austen acting industry, and giving Paltrow yet another chance to show off what is surely the best (and arguably the sexiest) fake British accent in the business. (Perversely, or possibly with deliberately mischievous intent, Trevor Eve is cast as one of the film's very few Americans.)
Maltin has time only for the historical sequences, and calls the modern scenes "full of ludicrous dialogue and arch, affected performances". Well, it's each to his own of course, and I have no particular torch to carry for the film, but I have to say it hit me the opposite way: that almost all of the customary howlers associated with American film-makers recreating modern England are avoided, the rhythm is natural and unforced, and some of the dialogue is really rather good. Compare it with Woody Allen's Match Point and surely anyone should be able to see what I mean. It's interesting that this came over as false to an American (yet Maltin praises Match Point for its "fresh British milieu") : I'd be amazed if a British viewer felt the same.
As drama, it did keep me at arm's length throughout: I found it frequently impressive, always diverting, but very rarely gripping and never moving. Whether this is a fault of the film-makers or merely an honest representation of its singularly remote and self-indulgent characters is a moot point. But the leads all contribute dependable work, the cross-cutting works, and there may be a surprise or two for viewers who have not been down many similar roads before.
All technical elements hit the bell safely.