No one thinks more carefuly about words than poets, scholars, and detectives. All three come together in two parallel love stories spanning two centuries, based on the astonishingly inventive, dauntingly intellectual, but rapturously romantic novel by A.S. Byatt.
Neil LaBute, best known for his harrowing and very contemporary portrayals of bitter, selfish, and manipulative people and abusive relationships in “Your Friends and Neighbors” and “In the Company of Men,” is an unexpected choice for this film. It required him to adapt someone else’s material, work with settings in another time and place, and portray relationships with genuine respect and intimacy. While he is not able to master the scope of the novel, the result is smart, satisfying, and fun.
Aaron Eckert (star of all of LaBute’s films and the biker boyfriend in “Erin Brockovich”) plays Roland Michell, a scholar of English literature who gets little respect because he is (1) a lowly research assistant and (2) American. Assigned the trivial task of leafing through a famous 19th century poet’s personal copy of a science book, in case the poet made any interesting marginal notes, he makes an astounding discovery.
The poet, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northern), was famous for his devotion to his wife and is thought to have been completely faithful to her. But between the pages of the old book are early drafts of what appear to be Ash’s love letters to another woman. Impulsively, Roland takes the pages. They are potentially a career-making discovery. But more important, they are exactly the kind of scholarly mystery that fires his mind and spirit.
Roland decides that the Ash letters may have been written to Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a minor poet. Roland goes to meet with Maud Bailey, (Gwyneth Paltrow), a professor, who is not only an expert on LaMotte, but also a great-niece. From there, the story goes back and forth between the two sets of lovers.
This is a high-gloss romance with pretty people falling in love. Forget bodice-ripping — bodice untying is conclusively shown to be even more voluptuous. But the subtlety and complexity of the novel is lost. There are vestiges about some ambitious thoughts about love, honor, risk, emotional and intellectual precision, and even scholarship, but what remains is a nice date movie, but not much more.
Parents should know that the movie has sexual situations and references, including sex between unmarried couples, a lesbian relationship, and an out of wedlock pregnancy. Roland and Maud almost become sexually involved when he stops, telling her that he has hurt others in the past and does not want to become physically intimate until they have a better sense of their relationship. A character commits suicide. Characters steal documents of great value. There is some strong language, and characters smoke and drink. Some audience members may be upset by scenes of an unauthorized exhumation.
Families who see this movie should talk about how the two couples are alike and how they are different, and they should talk about the decisions made by Ash and LaMotte to become involved with each other despite prior relationships. Who was hurt by what they did? What do we know about Roland’s and Maud’s prior relationships, and how did they help and hurt the development of their relationship with each other? What led them to trust — and mistrust — each other? What was the right thing for Roland to do when he discovered Ash’s draft letters? How much is it fair for us to learn about historical figures and what do we do with that information?
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the book, Possession: A Romance, with extraordinarily poems “by” Ash and LaMotte. They will also enjoy another story that counterpoises a 19th century love story with a contemporary one, The French Lieutenant’s Woman with Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep.