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POSSESSION

Tom Hollander, Lena Headey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam

Directed by: Barry Levinson, Neil Labute
Written by: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil Labute
Produced by: David Barron, Len Amato, Paula Weinstein, Barry Levinson
Distributor: Focus

US: 16/08/02 UK: 25/10/02

An upstart American scholar in London on a fellowship to study the great Randolph Henry Ash. Ash is best known for the rapturous poems he dedicated to his wife, and is currently the subject of a major exhibition. Maud Bailey is a brilliant, by-the-book academic, researching the life and work of the lesser-known Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte. As the history books tell it, La Motte met Ash briefly at a dinner, and they never encountered each other again. When Maud and Roland discover a cache of love letters that appear to link the two poets as secret lovers, they follow the trail of clues across England to the Continent. As the growing mystery leads them from dusty bookshelves to exotic hideaways and beyond, their adventure, in a very modern way, begins to mirror the romantic journey of Ash and LaMotte, over a century earlier.

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Gwyneth Paltrow admires the size of Aaron Eckhart's Mac




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LaBute takes on AS Byatt's Booker-winning novel in this beautifully made, extremely involving mystery-romance. Its three-sided plot works wonderfully, drawing us in with well-written and well-acted characters. Roland (Eckhart) is an American researcher in London who stumbles upon a possible connection between two 19th century poets, who we meet in flashbacks. Randolph Ash (Northam) was faithfully married to Ellen (Aird), but Roland suspects that he may have had an affair with Christabel LaMotte (Ehle), who was supposedly just as faithful to her lesbian lover Blanche (Headey). So Roland consults another expert, Dr Maud Bailey (Paltrow), and as they dig into the story, unearthing key evidence that points to possibilities and hidden truth, Maud and Roland begin to fall for each other as well. But they need to beat a pair of rival scholars (Stephens and Eve) to some real evidence.

The three storylines (Maud and Roland's search for the story, their romance and the parallel romance between Ash and LaMotte) dovetail perfectly, with the mystery driving the film and the love stories fleshing it out. There are unexpected twists and turns that add interest and some suspense, but it's the two emotional tales that keep us involved. And the principle roles are extremely well-played, with Paltrow's ice queen thawing slowly while Eckhart's intrepid flatfoot disarms her (and us) at every step. Meanwhile, Northam and Ehle get the best dialog, wrapped in poetry and heaving with period passion. LaBute directs with his trademark insight, never letting things get soppy on any level and keeping our brains engaged. The production is slick and impeccable. It's not completely successful though; the mystery climaxes in a rather weak "action" scene, and the romantic storylines never gather enough steam to make us swoon. But it's utterly gripping anyway. We become detectives with Roland and Maud, revelling in every discovery along with them, right up to the lovely collection of surprises at the end. YET


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