Directed Neil LaBute.
Running Time: 100 mins
For those of us who loved AS Byatt's Booker Prize winning novel, there is one major change in this screen adaptation that will drive us nuts.
In the book Byatt has Roland Michell as a working-class English lad with brains to burn. It sets up a terrific study in class snobbery as he has to deal with the upper class academic Maud Bailey. Generally I have no problem with films taking liberties with novels. They are, after all, different genres, but US director Neil LaBute decided to turn Michell into a dishevelled, loud and visiting American scholar. It robs the film of one of the book's central themes and shows that LaBute doesn't get the book. Michell (Eckhart) is an assistant to Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey) who is the world authority on the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Northam). Ash was Poet Laureate in Queen Victoria's court. Michell discovers some of Ash's letters in the British Library which indicates that the publicly proper poet may have had an affair. Michell theorises that the liaison could have been with Christabel La Motte (Jennifer Ehle), a lesser-known poet of the same period. Maud Bailey (Platrow) is the world's expert on La Motte and together she and Michell uncover the truth.
This very handsome film is big on romance and soft on drama. Where Byatt set up a parallel in class conflict between Michell and Bailey and to a lesser degree between Ash and La Motte, La Butte gives an overly sentimental reading to the Victorian love story, and proposes a colonial conflict between a yank and a Pom for the contemporary tale.
The performances are all pleasing with Platrow rendering again a very convincing English accent. Aaron Eckhart has great screen presence, but Jeremy's Northam's Ash lacks the fear of exposure that the Queen's poet would have risked if he was found out. Jennifer Ehle and Lena Headly, as her long-time companion Blanche, are perfectly cast.
There are clumsy narrative set-ups in the book and the film which does not help sell the believability of the story, like Christobel's room being undistributed for 100 years. The credibility factor is not helped by top-class academics pouring over antique letters and books without a white glove in sight. Furthermore, as the film progresses it is hard to see where Maud's reputation comes from as some fairly big gaps appear in her supposedly encyclopaedic knowledge about La Motte.
Possession is a charming but not gripping tale of love and intrigue that could fill the bill during a long hot summer's afternoon.
Richard Leonard SJ