Love in a cold climate

Director Neil LaBute, with help from a glowing Gwyneth Paltrow, defies all expectations in his glorious, difficult and tender screen adaptation of A.S. Byatt's literary romance "Possession."

Published August 16, 2002 8:00PM (EDT)

Whenever a beloved book, or even just a well-respected one, gets made into a movie, people who love books and the words inside them automatically feel a degree of apprehension. If we're honest, we might admit that the question isn't always so much "Will the movie fail to capture my sense of this book?" as much as "Will the movie, simply by virtue of being a movie and not a book, disappoint me?"

On the face of it, you couldn't have picked a more inappropriate filmmaker to adapt A.S. Byatt's intimately detailed, dappled "Possession," a literary detective novel but above all a love story, than Neil LaBute, director of pictures like "In the Company of Men" and "Nurse Betty." But sometimes the wrong director can make all the difference.

LaBute's "Possession" takes significant liberties with Byatt's novel -- chief among them, he has made the story's male romantic lead, the impoverished academic researcher Roland Michell (played by Aaron Eckhart), an American instead of a student-poor Englishman. Several minor characters have been excised completely, and the novel's somewhat mannered dialogue (which is appropriate to the book's characters and works nicely on the page) has been very loosely adapted to make it swing -- in other words, it has been smoothed and streamlined and perhaps, at times, too neatly patted into effective movie speech.

But LaBute, in his infinite and marvelous wrongness, infuses his movie with a delicacy of feeling that couldn't be more right for the material. LaBute obviously approached the project with his hands and his heart open: Frame by frame, it's a humble picture, a movie that isn't afraid to be an entertainment. The subtitle of Byatt's book is "A Romance," and LaBute clearly uses that term as his touchstone. Straightforward and old-fashioned in the best possible senses of both those words, "Possession" is a movie that puts itself squarely in the service of the lovers who inhabit it.

The intricacies of Byatt's narrative sometimes means those characters aren't the easiest masters to serve. "Possession" is about two pairs of lovers, one from the past and one from the present, whose stories are woven into one thick golden plait: The first pair are the (fictitious) Victorian poets Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel Lamotte (Jennifer Ehle), whose illicit affair comes to light when Roland finds a lost love letter tucked between the pages of an old book. The second pair are Roland himself and Dr. Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), scholars who are devoted to the study of these poets and who set off on a search for clues about their secret connection, falling in love reluctantly and tentatively themselves.

LaBute, with the help of his fellow screenwriters David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") and Laura Jones ("High Tide," "The Portrait of a Lady"), succeeds in streamlining Byatt's intricate plot without unbraiding it completely; he seems to have grasped the urgency of preserving the spirit of Byatt's rich language and multilayered, poetic details, while intuiting the potential dangers of getting lost in its misty quagmires.

But best of all, with "Possession" LaBute offers us one of the most delectable surprises of moviegoing: He has defied our expectations. I've never been a fan of LaBute's movies. The things his defenders like about him -- what they see as his "edginess," humor or absolute modernity -- I have perceived as a strained and pretentious sanctimoniousness; he has had a tendency to condescend to his characters, the better to make audiences feel good about themselves in the cheapest, easiest fashion.

In "In the Company of Men," in which two slick middle-management types cruelly seduce a beautiful deaf woman just for sport, LaBute used his characters as programmed voiceboxes for his prefab views on sexual politics, devising an elaborately contrived situation to prove what scumbags men can be. (If they're such scumbags by nature, why does he need so much contrivance to prove it?) "Nurse Betty" purportedly entreated us to share one woman's feel-good delusional daydream, but it was really an invitation for would-be sophisticates to laugh at her dopey middle-American hopes and motivations.

Hardcore LaBute fans may find "Possession" an oddity at the very least and a betrayal of his talents at worst. But "Possession" marks the first time LaBute has wrapped a picture in any kind of warmth -- which may sound strange, considering it's a very carefully made picture that is at least partly about English reserve and caution when it comes to love. But in some ways, the sleek warmth of "Possession" is more immediately appealing than the burled wordiness of the book. (Byatt's book is brilliant, but it contains a few too many examples of the author's pitch-perfect re-creations of Victorian-era poetry -- she works what starts out as a wonderful, gorgeous, multi-hued tapestry of a joke into a threadbare carpet.)

One of Byatt's subjects in "Possession" (she gets around to it eventually and indirectly) is the inedequacy of words to plumb the depths of real passion. LaBute puts that idea squarely at the center of his movie, showing us how Maud and Roland negotiate their love gingerly and cautiously, while the Victorians, after testing the waters with a few carefully phrased letters, plunge right in. Because they know the full power of words, the poets are more hardnosed about the limitations of those words; the academics, on the other hands, know only words -- signifiers of feelings instead of, as the Victorian poets would have had it, messengers that allow those feelings to take wing.

That's a fairly subtle idea for a motion picture, but LaBute gently and unobtrusively guides his performers to the heart of it. Paltrow's Maud Bailey is a crisp, no-nonsense academic at a small English university who seems to be making her way through her life and her work with an efficient clickety-clack -- her specialty is women's studies, and the poems of Christabel LaMotte are a special interest, partly because Bailey herself is distantly related to the poet.

Eckhart's Roland (whose specialty in this his-and-hers mix is the poet Ash) is much further down on the academic food chain -- he's a lowly researcher who's constantly short of funds. He contacts Maud, seeking her advice and counsel on the secret love letter he's found. When she meets him at the train station, the first we see of her is a pair of extremely soft, extremely tasteful and extremely expensive low-heeled black boots: Maud Bailey is not one of those stereotypically scattered, frizzy-haired, mother-hen academics, but one whose approach to everything she does is as tightly wound and controlled as her long golden hair, which is always (for reasons the movie, like the book, explains) wrapped in a tight little bun.

Paltrow plays Maud with so much coolness that she holds us, and not just Roland, at arm's length for much of the movie. But it's what makes the gradual, almost pointillistic way in which she opens up to Roland that much more believable. Eckhart, in a beautifully shaded performance, plays Roland not as an unlikably brash American but as a ruggedly expressive one -- in other words, the kind of American who isn't distasteful to Englishpeople but who is still decidedly and unequivocally foreign. Badly shaven, his hair perpetually standing up as if he's just yanked a polo-neck over his head, he's so raffish and casual that you almost wonder how he found his way into the midst of all these English academics and their flowery poets to begin with.

But as Eckhart reveals them to us, Roland's most deeply American qualities serve the story precisely. That he's a stranger in a strange land (his dedication as an academic makes him belong in this setting, but his Americanness sets him forever apart) is a metaphor for how foreign we sometimes feel to ourselves when we're falling in love.

Eckhart and Paltrow play their gradual coming together with a kind of prickly unease that's both frustrating and pleasurable, as well as wholly believable. Paltrow may be one of those rare American actresses who's more believable as an Englishwoman: Her slow, reserved smile, and that shy and coltish way she has of bowing her head (like a girl who believes she's too tall to pass through any doorway), are the qualities that make her most touching here.

Roland and Maud's meeting is the beginning of an adventure in which they track down the complete cache of letters exchanged between Christabel and Ash (she is always referred to by her first name, and he by his last). Their search for the truth of the poets' relationship is hampered by Sir George (Graham Crowden), a crotchety old man who believes the letters belong to him; Cropper (Trevor Eve, in a performance that's both suitably oily and dried-out), an acquisitive American academic who's more interested in the trappings of Ash's life than in his actual work; and Roland's boss, Blackadder (Tom Hickey), a scattered but benign scholar who has buried himself in the minutiae of Ash's life and letters.

It must have been LaBute's intention that the sections of the movie dealing with Christabel and Ash are the most vivid and most deeply romantic. Northam, who can be wonderful or woodenly self-conscious, is at his best here -- he shields his poet's heart with a businesslike Victorian reserve, but he always lets you hear it beating. And Ehle's Christabel is quietly sensational: With her prim smile and mischievously glittering eyes, she captures the essence of a difficult and intelligent woman who freely chooses a passionate and open life, fully aware that it's bound to bring her only sorrow.

Their scenes together are less uneasily electric than those between Eckhart and Paltrow -- the current between them is more like rushing water than the sizzle (or fizzle) of connecting wires. They're the picture of a certain romantic ideal that's wholly organic in its perfection and intensity -- but even if, technically, they're human stand-ins for the lushest ideas of the Victorian age, the movie makes sure we believe in them as people, too.

LaBute -- an American and a Mormon -- approaches England as a polite outsider, and it works. Parts of the picure are set in Yorkshire, and LaBute and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier offer us an affectionate and clear-eyed view of the English countryside and its people. In one of the movie's most understated jokes, a crisp young Yorkshire innkeeper patiently listens to Roland and Maud's protestations that they're colleagues and simply must have separate rooms by responding drily, "I'm sure it's more complicated than I can imagine."

LaBute's production designer, Luciana Arrighi ("Howard's End"), gives us settings drenched in rich, muted plums and browns, occasionally shot through with golden Pre-Raphaelite touches. And LaBute finds simple, breathtakingly effective ways of connecting the Victorian-era story with the present-day one: As Roland and Maud rush down a country road in a modern car and disappear from view, a 19th-century locomotive puffs into sight along the ridge above them, headed in the opposite direction.

"Possession" is the type of richly resonant movie that Karel Reisz should have made from John Fowles' ominously vibrant and romantic "The French Lieutenant's Woman" but didn't. LaBute approaches his material both intelligently and intuitively, fully aware of the idea that a movie version of a novel is always a newly created world.

That can be a thankless job for any filmmaker. When it comes to bringing books to the screen, the critic Robin Wood has noted, "There is no such thing as a faithful adaptation." According to Wood, the idea of faithful adaptation implies that "film is the inferior art, and should be content (or even proud) to reproduce precisely what it can never hope to reproduce: the movement of the author's words on paper."

LaBute knew he couldn't represent that movement, and didn't even try. Instead, he chose to work in a kind of vernacular shorthand that feels modern and emotionally direct -- he doesn't shrink from passion where it's called for.

As Roland and Maud, making up after a tiff and moving closer to enjoying their first real kiss as lovers (there has been an earlier one, but it doesn't really count), Roland looks at her intently and explains, "I just want to see if there's an 'us' in 'you and me.'"

In the audience I saw the movie with, a few people tittered, perhaps embarrassed by the sheer "movieness" of the line. But for Roland and Maud, in so many ways more constricted than their Victorian counterparts, the line is its own kind of fervent and deeply felt poetry -- a sentence that's Victorian in timbre if not in eloquence. By the end of the movie, Maud and Roland have fallen in love slowly, carefully, tentatively, as modern lovers so often do, negotiating every possible contingency and pitfall in advance. They may be less tortured than their Victorian friends, and yet somehow they're sadder for not being able to rush at love headlong.

Even so, we walk away from the movie with some fragile hopefulness for their future. Christabel and Ash may have had a love that extended beyond the grave, but in life, it took months and torrents of words before they found the courage to touch fingertips. Even timeless love has to start out tentatively, shakily -- maybe that's the jarring needed to set the clock's hands in perpetual motion.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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A. S. Byatt Movies