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.


Darrell said...

Opinions about movies (film)--like opinions on most things consumed--depend upon the mood of the moment and the other things going on in your life. It's easy to see how views can vary widely. It's also a pleasure to read such a thoughtful review as yours. Do visit the spot at James' place where you told us about your review--I'll have things to say here that belong there.

I agree about your assessment of the main criticisms of the film. No film can--or should--replicate the book. The book is structured the way it is because AS Byatt could. She could provide essentially the life's work of her fictional poets within the same book. She could provide appendices to explain scholarly points. She could provide faux scholarly analysis of her fiction poets' work and details that could choke any creature you'd be able to conceive. In order to achieve the same with a film, it would have to be interactive, allowing you to drift away to an appendix or special feature (extras). It is like saying that the movie about the creation of the Encyclopedia Britannica doesn't do the book(s) justice.

But what about your concerns about the plausibility of the plotline--delayed important discoveries? It has happened. It will happen again--whenever key clues have been missing or kept from researchers. In the movie, the elderly couple didn't let anyone see what they had. I got the impression that someone other than their relative (Gwyn) had seen the childhood relics of the Christabel LaMotte, but just dismissed them as memorabilia. Maud Bailey NOW had access AND a reason to look, to unravel the clues hidden in LaMotte's words. The reason--a love letter put into an soon-to-be uncirculated book by an heir wasn't seen (or if it had, was not thought to be relevant) until NOW. And do recall the renewed interest in LaMotte's work in the age of womens' studies. The real mystery of the Titanic wasn't solved until the 1970s. Why? Because the items needed for the scientific proof where hidden at the home of an employee of the shipbuilder (and on the sea floor). Coupons (metal punch-outs from the hull plate) were engraved to hand out to dignitaries at the launch, but weren't ready on the day. They were ready after it sank and the employee was ordered to destroy them, but didn't. Analysis showed incredibly brittle steel due to steel mills switching from anthracite coal to bituminous in Britain to keep up with the demand for steel. The coal they switched to was incredibly high in sulfur which embrittles the steel. That fact is known now, but not then. There were no standards because the science of metallurgy was in its infancy. The Titanic could have been in a minor collision with a much smaller vessel or a dock--one that wouldn't cause concern for the older ships--and still have sunk. An accident waiting to happen. Your notification of this movie review at James' is another. I might have never seen this had James not told me given that I don't memorize comment counts and search the archives waiting for a change. I find the plotline of the book and the movie wholly plausible.

(To Be Continued)

Darrell said...


There's an old joke (at least to me) that the reason why academics fight so hard for their points is that the stakes are so low. Does it matter that Christabel LaMotte
loved women or men or both? Does it matter that she loved--at least for a moment--and conceived a child with a now and then more famous male poet? That he cheated on his wife that he truly loved? To their descendants, perhaps, and to TMZ or HuffPo UK, most definitely. But like patrons at the Uni faculty bar are never on edge about the debate that could break out at any second, I don't believe that Byatt or LaBute expected their patrons to be gripping their seats white-knuckled. That fight at the graveyard wouldn't cause a Quaker to blink. The treasure map being drawn is a path into Maud Bailey's heart (and simultaneously, Roland Michell's). And it is a treasure beyond measure. I fell in love with Maud Bailey during the film. Gwyneth Paltrow may have had something to do wih that (full disclosure). And the words from Byatt's poets and their use in the film provided the mix tape (playlist) for the journey. I was in the perfect mood and state-of-mind to see this unexpected movie one Sunday afternoon, and it hit its mark. What more can you ask of a film?

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks so much for such a detailed and interesting response, Darrell.
I have no wish to challenge any of your convictions, but would like to just clear up a couple of points about my own piece.

Obviously I wasn't suggesting that the film should have attempted an exact transposition of Byatt's structure (which as you said would of course been impossible), or that it somehow cheats in not doing so. The objection - which I was merely repeating, not expressing myself - was that when you take all that intertextual stuff out, what you have is merely the skeleton on which the essence of the book is hung, the basic narrative thread, and that this is not the central element of the book. In other words, this is a literary case where narrative - the only element that cinematic adaptation is capable of isolating - is a secondary feature of the whole that cannot be said to speak for it in any significant way. And the actual 'plot' of the book, when removed from its context, is not unlike many another (among a few others, it especially reminded me of another film of a book I've not read: The French Lieutenant's Woman).
In its most vehement expression, this position argues that there was simply no point in turning it into a film, because the essence is lost in that way, and all you are left with is 'story'.
Now, as someone who came to it without any acquaintance with the original, I would say from experience that this is in fact not the case. I thought what we had here was a worthwhile movie on its own terms. I must stress, I did enjoy it.
The only other related objection I made (in fact the only real objection) was over the nature of their discoveries. But it's not so much that I doubted the evidence they found would have been there for them, it was more the speed and ease with which it turned up once the chance discovery had been made. I don't know, but I wondered if this effect was a result of adaptive concision, and in the book it all happens more slowly and with more room for misdirection and false turns along the way. They just seem so very lucky in the film, and in that I suspected not failure of imagination but pressure of time.

Other than that I appreciate all your points, and I certainly wanted to be swept along by its emotional trajectory. Indeed, it wasn't until the halfway point that I realised, with regret, that I wasn't. As I said, I found it impressive and enjoyable in many ways, but remote in the ways that most count with a piece of this nature. Still unquestionably a worthwhile piece of work.
I just have the feeling - and as my nation's foremost propagandist for the 75 minute movie, you won't hear me saying this very often - that it would have seemed a lot more involving, and not much longer, if it had been three and a half hours instead of one and three quarters, and was more sedately - but perhaps hypnotically - paced.
I'd like to see a French version.

Matthew Coniam said...

And yes about Gwyneth Paltrow, obviously.

Darrell said...

I guess I didn't make it quite clear when I said, "I agree about your assessment of the main criticisms of the film. I have a tendency to become a (pale) imitation of Ms Byatt in normal cases, so I chose brevity. I was just piling on, hoping to amplify your point that this is a film that should never be compared with its written mother. Sorry about the confusion.

I did read the book and to me the core plot of the film is essentially that of the book. I think we need to debate what exactly that is, if you don't think so. Boiled down, both the book and the movie are about Maud Bailey being given her inheritance--the truth about her heritage and the the benefits of her parental (if not ancestral heritage, if you count mythological creatures from before the time of man) heritage. There is a supernatural overtone to the entire situation, as if current events were destiny. Sources I have read sad the Byatt suggested some of the changes when the original script was put to paper. The book was intended for a different audience--gender-studies majors and they world that doesn't laugh when they hear that. The movies touches on the mystical (that creature that LaMotte heard about as a child--a being from before human creation cursed by a "male-acting" God for essentially being what she was. And when given a break--human form--she was betrayed again by a man that could not keep his promise not to ogle her when she took her bath in her secret room in her true form once a month (her time), cursed again by being kept from her children and forced to wail in the night! [I think Byatt said weekly, but that's just modernity talking] Whoa! I'm a man and I almost punched myself for sharing a chromosome with them (well, one of them). The film version touches on this, but pushes it way down, almost out of the frame. Some might say "Thank Goodness!" The film SHOULD have made the connection being LaMotte and Maud Bailey stronger, as the book did. Christabel's hair was a color that is not seen--something that everyone would have remarked upon throughout her whole life and what provided confirmation in her mind that she was one of these creatures of folklore. Maud Bailey has the same hair and glow. The film gives the thumbnail details and we are left to decide whether Christabel's fate of being kept at arm's length from her child and the child denied her proper father was a self-inflicted, totally unnecessary, wound.

I don't even want to think about Maud Bailey repeating the "curse," but thankfully neither the book nor the movie touches upon that. I suggest that she tell Roland Michell that she turns into Rosie O'Donnell when she goes into her secret room.

Darrell said...

Btw, I love AS Byatt's book. It is one of the few things that deserve the word "awesome." I would die satisfied and happy if that were my entire life's worth.

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks again, and again no wish to disagree vehemently, but I wasn't disputing the idea that "the core plot of the film is essentially that of the book" - ie not saying that the plot of the film was different to or reductive of the plot of the book - but rather repeating the suggestion (made by others) that the 'plot', ie the narrative thread, is in itself and in its entirety not the most important thing in the book, but is rather the frame upon which to hang the book's essence (which is more to do with form and the ideas raised about biographical as opposed to lived history, the artistic personality and so on). The film, therefore, in only being able to reproduce the plot, misses the guts and heart, and the original conceiving point, of the source, which was defined above all by its status as a written work.
This doesn't mean that the film can't be good in its own right. And I'm not even saying that this objection is true or fair... only that it has been made, and that is its substance.
For what it's worth, and going on guesswork alone, I doubt I would agree. Certainly the points you make about the differences between the two in their aims and intended audience leads me to suspect I might well prefer the film to the book...

James Nicholas said...

I imagine the film held a certain attraction to the average audience, a romantic drama with scenes from 19th century England, over which in the effort to explore and understand the past the two romantic leads fall in love. Yeah, nice. And for the run of the mill TMZ/UK Daliy Mail crowd, that and a couple of drinks at the Amber Bar and you're set for the night. But there is much more to this story, and that is the part that I loved about it. That if you are willing to look, there is imagery and references to literature and legendary tales that add meaning and depth, which you may not otherwise find, unless you are looking. I do enjoy reading and writing, largely about military figures from the second world war, and when you read what the individuals say and then look back at the pictures of the times and think about the events as the transpired, suddenly you see things from a whole new perspective, and the times come alive again. You know where they are going and why, you know why they are using the equipment they did, and how their experience changed things. Small things on the periphery of the image suddenly take on great meaning. In reading what you have both wrote I find a parallel, that there is a joy in discovery that the story opens a door to, and whether the date picked up on it or not, it still is there for those that are interested in looking.

I enjoy very much the discussion, and find myself keen to see this again.

Darrell said...

I just thought of another vaguely similar delayed discovery that traces back to an uncirculated book in a library. A painting on vellum, listed as a German piece, appeared at an auction in New York in 1998. A man at that auction thought he saw the work of DaVinci's hand, but he passed on it after his early bid was bested, because he was really there for another painting. He immediately regretted it, but let it go. In 2007 he saw it again at auction and he bought it for close to the original auction amount. He then took it to his friend, Dr. Nicholas Turner, former Keeper of Prints & Drawings at the British Museum , who in turn brought it to the attention of leading Leonardo experts Drs. Martin Kemp and Carlo Pedretti, among others. When their work got out in the press, one of then (I believe Kemo) got an anonymous note from a reader telling him to look in the Zaluski Library at the National Library of Poland at their copy of the Sforziada, a history of the Sforza family commissioned by them containing handwritten and printed entries. Several of them which belonged to specific family members are known to exist. The anonymous tipster described seeing that "painting"--by now dubbed La Bella Principessa within the volume in Poland. The people involved did what the note suggested and have evidence that the painting was at one time part of that volume (although they would need to take apart the volume to be sure--at present, they've only matched 3 of 5 holes for certain.) You can see her here-

If this is the case, this DaVinci stayed hidden from around 1493 until it wound up being donated to the library in Poland where it sat unmolested until someone liberated it just prior to 1998 (or slightly before). In any case it had to be within the memory of a still living person who remembered seeing it and sent the anonymous note.