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An admirable, strenuously literate attempt to bring A.S. Byatt's beloved, Booker Prize-winning novel to the screen, Possession (2002) consists of one thoroughly captivating romance when, unfortunately, it requires two. Under the unlikely direction of Neil LaBute, whose most memorable works — In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors — are misanthropic affairs in which "love" is perhaps the only four-letter word that goes unuttered, the film is handsomely mounted and teeming with pedigree (the script was co-written by the director with Tony Award-winner David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones). But LaBute hamstrings himself by casting frequent collaborator Aaron Eckhart as the romantic lead. A resourceful actor who often shines in more complex roles, Eckhart appears bored as Roland Michell, a brooding American scholar toiling away in England as a research assistant to a dotty old professor who happens to be an expert on legendary Victorian-era poet Randolph Henry Ash (a fictitious creation of novelist Byatt). When Michell discovers that Ash, a famously devoted husband, might have conducted an affair with a lesser-known contemporary, Christabel LaMotte (again, entirely invented by the author), he enlists the aid of LaMotte expert Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) to track down an elusive paper-trail of exquisitely composed love letters that may very well be the literary discovery of the century. As the pair of amateur sleuths comb the British countryside for clues, complications arise when Maud's beau (and Michell's scholarly rival) Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens) stumbles across their findings and seeks to exploit them for his own gain. This not only heightens the immediacy of the pair's ongoing investigation, but also causes them to ever-so-expectedly fall in love. Skipping back-and-forth from modern-day to Victorian-era England, Possession comes alive in the period segments, wherein Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle conjure palpable romantic heat as the doomed poets. But it goes limp once the story shifts back to Eckhart and Paltrow, who, while being the most overwhelmingly photogenic screen couple of 2002, can't transcend the stiff confines of their scholarly roles. Which is Possession's chief conceptual flaw: As compelling cinematic characters go, tortured, highly eloquent romantics trump whiny, passionless academics every time. Though off on his casting, LaBute does operate confidently from the period-picture playbook and never allows the pace to flag. He also receives invaluable assistance from ace cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier, who ably provides the requisite visual splendor so typical of the genre. Universal presents the film in a fine anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Largely bereft of extras, the disc does offer, along with the theatrical trailer, an articulate and informative commentary from LaBute, who candidly addresses the controversial choices made in streamlining the 500-plus-page novel, which included changing the main character's nationality from British to American. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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