Although the most popular of writer A. S. Byatt’s works, her novel Possession is far from being a likely candidate for film adaptation. Byatt’s main interest has long been English literature, specifically 19th century Romantic poetry, and in Possession she not only created a fictitious post-Coleridge, pre-Modern poet, but also a great deal of his poetry and his insinuating Victorian letters, as well as the poetry and letters of the object of his extramarital affection. The story of the poet’s affair is slowly revealed in a parallel modern story where two literary investigators, one male, one female, collaborate to uncover various clues against a mildly amusing backdrop of competitive scholars with vested interests. But it’s also the story of a suggestive, symbol-laden and layered language casting its spell on a present-day couple. Take this away and all you have left is plot.
And a somewhat diminished plot at that. The two young scholars are the American Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart) and the English Maude Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). Roland, while doing some research in the British museum on the Victorian-era poet Randolph Henry Ash (played in flashback by Jeremy Northam), comes across a letter which indicates that Ash might have had an affair with the minor poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Roland purloins the letter then seeks out Maude, an expert on LaMotte, and their sleuthing leads to the discovery that Ash and LaMotte did indeed have a serious affair. And that, along with the inevitable coming together of Roland and Maude, is pretty much it.
There’s a subplot about contending scholarly interests which is presented in a hurried and confusing matter, and the motivation of those so concerned with the truth or fiction of Ash’s infidelity is shown but not explained. It seems like much ado about very little, which is to be expected when all we get of the pursued texts are a few plaintive voiceovers from Ash and LaMotte (who, in the book, turns out to be, poetically, not so minor after all).
It ends up seeming like such a sub-Merchant/Ivory confection that it hardly seems worth mentioning that it was directed by Neil LaBute, past master of the harsh scenario. It’s worth noting, though, that he proves a competent hand at evoking the muted lushness which is the stand-in for Byatt’s intricately seductive prose.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.