Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American academic on secondment in London. He discovers a letter from Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (played in flashbacks by Jeremy Northam) to fellow poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). But surely Ash was happily married – and wasn’t Christabel a lesbian, living with Blanche Glover (Lena Headey)? Roland speaks to Dr Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a distant relative of Christabel’s and an authority on her. They go to the family home and discover a hidden cache of love letters between Randolph and Christabel. While they try to unravel the mystery, rival academics led by Professor Mortimer Cropper (Trevor Eve) realise that Roland and Maud are on to something…
A.S. Byatt’s highly literary Booker Prizewinning novel would seem to be unfilmable: a dense five hundred pages, with all the past-time action conveyed by means of brilliantly pastiched Victorian letters and poetry. Neil LaBute’s film is a fair stab, decently made and acted, but it doesn’t come off. Lovers of the novel – and there are many, including LaBute – are less likely than others to take to this adaptation. Those with less at stake may enjoy Possession as a romance with a mystery added, but somehow some vital spark went astray. Byatt’s novel is above all a statement that Literature Matters. And that’s what doesn’t come across too well: if you don’t buy that central idea, you may find the whole film a case of much ado about not a lot.
The first stumbling block is the changing of Roland from gauche Brit to gauche Yank. This change had Byatt’s approval, but it fails to come to life on screen. It might have worked with a different actor, but Aaron Eckhart is simply very badly miscast. His awkwardness in love is explained away as a few messy past relationships. You also sense that someone as good looking as him would actually find life made easier for him than the opposite. Gwyneth Paltrow’s ability to adopt a convincing English accent isn’t in doubt by now, but there’s something a little glacial about her performance here. In contrast to this American playing an Englishwoman, Trevor Eve is even less successful playing an American.
The past-time sequences are more successful. Northam and Ehle are no strangers to costume drama, and they acquit themselves ably. A word for Lena Headey’s portrayal of Blanche, the best work I’ve ever seen from this actress. LaBute’s direction is smooth and workmanlike, often switching from present to past in a single panning shot. Jean-Yves Escoffier’s Scope photography is very easy on the eye. But Possession is a film which lacks heat: it keeps your attention for a commendably concise hour and a half plus, but doesn’t linger in the mind much afterwards. It’s ultimately a misfire, though a not unhonourable one.