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“Possession”

It is doubtful that “Possession” will make much of a splash at the box office, even as the summer winds down. But if you are looking for something written for adults—say, a different sort of mystery, one involving history and art rather than violence and murder—then “Possession” is a film to see.

Then in 2000, LaBute’s most successful film to date, “Nurse Betty,” opened to rave reviews. For his follow-up, LaBute has directed an intellectual mystery that weaves two stories: one told in flashbacks to the 19th century, the other involving contemporary academics seeking to understand what happened to the characters of the flashbacks.  

 

“Possession” is not as good as “Men” or “Betty,” though much better than “Neighbors.” Ultimately, one has to admire LaBute for taking on something so different from his previous works.

 

In “Possession,” a young doctoral student stumbles onto some letters that could alter the assumed truth of a famous poet’s life. As he investigates, he meets a literature professor who is, at first, skeptical of his ideas, but soon falls for both his theories and his charm. 

 

As their investigation unfolds, the audience is shown what really happened to the poet, and the mystery is resolved as both stories progress. “Possession” is a costume drama, a mystery and a love story all in one. It’s not often that one gets so much for the price of one admission.

 

There are two prominent reasons to recommend “Possession.” The performances are all quite good. Gwyneth Paltrow sports the British accent that helped her win an Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love.”  Aaron Eckhart, who has been in all four of LaBute’s films, plays an appealing hero here, unlike his roles in the other three films. Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle are the heart and soul of the flashbacks, and both deliver performances worthy of more screen time. These portrayals, along with fine art direction, costuming and a pleasant musical score, make “Possession” a good experience at the cinema.

 

Then there is the story itself. This is not a typical movie mystery. Based on the novel by A.S. Byatt, this is a film about academics seeking to understand artists from the past. The conversations are intellectual, the ideas are thought provoking, and most of the plot is revealed not through actions but discussions of possibilities. 

 

There are some clues along the way, and the audience is given facts through the flashbacks, but ultimately, this is a film about discovering history and understanding ideas. On top of that, poetry is read on film, something noticeably missing from most of this summer’s flicks. All that may sound like a boring English literature lecture, but this film is actually stimulating.

 

“Possession” is far from perfect. There are a few logistical questions, especially involving the mystery’s set-up. Are we really supposed to believe that no one else has ever found those letters in that book? Several of the plot developments are expected. A plotline involving competing academics should have ended up on the editor’s floor.  And a cemetery scene near the end seems out of place here, belonging in some corny action movie, not in a film which has taken the intellectual high road for most of its screen time.

 

These flaws, however, do not reduce the fine performances, the thoughtful dialogue or the compelling story.

 

It is doubtful that “Possession” will make much of a splash at the box office, even as the summer winds down. But if you are looking for something written for adults—say, a different sort of mystery, one involving history and art rather than violence and murder—then “Possession” is a film to see.

 

Roger Thomas is pastor of NortheastBaptistChurch in Atlanta.

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality and some thematic elements

Director: Neil LaBute

Writers: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil LaBute (from the novel by A.S. Byatt)

Cast: Maud Bailey: Gwyneth Paltrow; Roland Michell: Aaron Eckhart; Randolph Henry Ash: Jeremy Northam; Christabel LaMotte: Jennifer Ehle; Blanche Glover: Lena Headey.