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No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed
on September 12, 2003
"Possession" is one of the most romantic movies I have ever seen, alongside Tom Tykwer's "Heaven." A double-edged tale of love, passion, and words that can entice or betray, this is one of the few masterful films that actually brought tears to my eyes. Wonderful acting, beautiful direction, and one of the most amazing love stories ever seen in a movie.
Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), a brash young American scholar, is studying an old book of the famed poet William Randolph Ash when he encounters an old love letter. After some digging, he theorizes that it was addressed to the more obscure poet Christabel LaMonte -- but both poets were either married or in a long-term relationship. If he's right, it would rock the literary world. He seeks the help of Maud Bailey, a cold feminist scholar who has a particular fondness for Christabel's work. Maud tries to bring him down to earth by explaining that Christabel was a lesbian, but Roland is undaunted.
They travel to Christabel's old home and unearth a cache of letters between Ash and Christabel, hidden away by her lover. It tells of a love affair that was doomed from the start: The correspondence first inspired respect, then friendship, then a burning love. Finally, Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel (Jennifer Ehle) escape to the countryside for a few weeks alone. Those few weeks will mar the rest of their lives...
Like all adaptations, "Possession" strays a bit from its original work (Roland is made American rather than English, many supporting characters are omitted). But the spirit and tone of the story are close to the book. The core of the story is words. Words that are hidden and words that reveal, words that could change a person's life or perceptions -- depending on whether they are read by the one they are intended for. Even the name of a little child can change a man's life, and his perception of the woman he loves.
But more than that, it's an illustration of love in its different forms: There is the passion of the soulmates, Ash and Christabel; and there is the gradual warming and closeness between Maud and Roland. As Randolph Ash says, "There are many kinds of love." Even though the modern love story is okay by movie standards, it's pale and insubstantial compared to the Victorian love story. (Maybe this is because Maud and Roland have the POSSIBILITY of a deep attachment, whereas Ash and Christabel have full-fledged, undeniable feelings). This film isn't afraid to show love in all its glory and beauty, its pain and intensity.
The direction is beautiful and stately, with the shots of waterfalls and majestic old houses. And Neil LaBute is amazing at choreographing little hints of tension and attraction. He handles the shifting from one era to another expertly; one wonderful scene pans away from Maud and Roland, to rest on Christabel.
Aaron Eckhart does a solid job as Roland; he's pretty charming and twinkly-eyed, but not outstanding. Gwyneth Paltrow has a little trouble making Maud sympathetic, but she manages it (sort of). It's Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle who steal the show. They radiate emotion, so much so that merely glancing at one another has significance and substance. Lena Heady and Holly Aird also give moving, if brief, performances as Blanche Glover (Christabel's ex-lover) and Ellen Ash (Ash's wife).
This is a movie for lovers and true romantics, those who can appreciate the beauty of the love story. While not perfect, it's a haunting and beautiful story, one of the most moving romantic movies I've ever seen. Highly recommended.