review for Possession on AllMovie

Possession (2002)
by Dan Friedman review

One of the marks and pleasures of a talented filmmaker is in the works that tend to break away from their established genre and stretch their skills in a direction previously unexplored. Neil LaBute's Possession fits neatly into that category as it provides the writer/director with some variations on his previous work. It's the second film he's made not based on his own original work, the source material instead coming from the popular novel by A.S. Byatt. Also, there are elements of period drama involved, most decidedly a departure from the modern focus of his other films. Possession is the story of two modern literary scholars, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart, who together try to uncover the hidden relationship between a 19th century poet laureate, played by Jeremy Northam, and a lesser-known poet played by Jennifer Ehle. As they uncover more and more clues, their own relationship begins to take on the characteristics of the one they are studying. It sounds much more simple than it actually is, as the plot also involves something akin to a heated scholarly competition to discover the truth, but that is very much secondary to the two relationships. The film shifts back and forth between time periods, and some of the overall highlights involve the clever means by which these transitions are carried out. The look of the film is magnificent, with the contrast between the Victorian era and modern times very clearly demarcated -- the Victorians live in a lush, richly colorful world, while the present-day scholars work in an almost antiseptic academic setting. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Northam and Ehle come across as so much more believable than Paltrow and Eckhart. All the performances are decent, at least to the point where they don't distract from the film, but Paltrow's character is established as too much of a cold fish to allow the audience to believe she could actually give herself so completely to Eckhart, no matter how likeable and studly he is. On the other hand, Northam and Ehle generate an onscreen passion that appears not only genuine, but deeply moving when circumstances remove their affair from their own control. This is another feather in LaBute's cap -- a true love story from a man whose debut film chronicled cruel toying with a stranger's emotions. Though somewhat underrated, Possession has many attributes of a film that will stand the test of time. Not only does it have romance between very attractive personas, but it also has enough of a plot and clever cinematic tricks to hold interest for the entire length.