In our modern computer age, history is encrypted in the temporary Internet file, a virtual defense against cultural revisionism. Word of mouth can only go so far and Neil LaBute’s Possession (based on the A.S. Byatt novel) suggests that our knowledge of history is nothing less than misinformed. Denizens of the pre-technological age had quills and scrolls of paper at their disposable yet some of their more torrid tales of love and heartache seemed contingent on mere hearsay or the discovery of notes hidden within secret nooks and crannies. In Possession, two literary sleuths fall in love during an amateur detective mission that seeks to shed light on the romantic, extra-marital exploits of the fictional poet Randolph Henry Ash (played in flashbacks by Jeremy Northam). The discovery of an unfinished love letter leads to the assumption that Ash may have been engaged in an illicit affair with fictional poetess and maybe-lesbian Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) scale the British countryside for missing pieces of the puzzle just as director Neil LaBute begins draws comparisons between the poet couple and the modern sleuths that resist romantic ideality.
Nancy Drew and her scruffy Hardy boy find love along the way yet Possession seems less concerned with the hunt than it is with the fascinating notion that history shall forever remain elusive to those who seek it most. Despite its provocative breakdown of historical comforts, the film seems plagued by visual shortcomings. The uneven narrative focus can perhaps be blamed on the crosscutting between parallel tales that otherwise have little to do with one another (indeed, the film’s waterfall scene is LaBute’s forced visual bridge between past and present). Despite evidence to the contrary, Maud dismisses Roland’s claim that Ash was having an affair with Christabel. Though plausible, this hypothesis reeks of an affront to British stoicism by seemingly non-romantic Yank. LaBute, whose first two films were exploitative studies of the modern yuppie, constructs an interesting cultural bridge between Maud and Roland only to dismantle it once the couple finds love. And while Roland repeatedly declares his inability to love, little light has been cast on Roland’s past insecurities to explain his present behavior.
Maud and Roland’s affection for each other seems grounded solely in their appreciation for detective work (it seems unlikely that they would have fallen in love under any other circumstance). LaBute also touches upon but never really addresses the couple’s class differences. Paltrow and Eckhart’s screen chemistry is strangely aloof though Paltrow plays the melting ice queen with expert precision. Possession suggests that history and its best-kept secrets have been sequestered by the emotionally guarded. Possession is truly fascinating from a theoretical point of view though much of the film plays out like prime fodder for fans of the romantic comedy. Indeed, a grave-robbing scene cripples the film with folly when it should have seriously shed light on Byatt’s concern with her characters’ pervasive need to own history. Posession is so visually lightweight that its otherwise potent historical discourse is rendered mute by the slightness of LaBute’s romantic and theoretical breath.