(2002) ** Pg-13
102 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Neil LaBute. Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey.

Despite his Mormon background, writer-director Neil LaBute has made a name for himself as somewhat of an heir to David Mamet with his theatrically tough dialogue and unblinking themes. With Possession, LaBute steps into more lyrical, classical territory by adapting A.S. Byatt's literate romantic novel Possession: A Romance. I have no problem accepting LaBute in this territory, on his own merits, but the merits of his still young career remain in question. As the man once said, "I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?"

Possession, like the novel, tells two parallel love stories--one in the nineteenth century and one in the present day. In the present, Aaron Eckhart plays Roland Michell, an American research assistant (British in the novel) who makes the startling discovery that presumed-faithful married poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) may have romanced presumed-lesbian poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). The film leaps backward in time to presumably depict what happened, though it's tempting to take these scenes--framed as the researchers' extrapolations--as unreliable, given the often sketchy nature of the story's evidence. The joke's on us, of course, since both timelines are fictional. Unsurprisingly, the taboo-laden, rule-breaking search for truth ignites the libidos of Michell and Gwyneth Paltrow's icy scholar.

Possession faced a number of pitfalls in reaching the screen, foremost being the condensation of the two involved plotlines into a screenplay; Byatt elaborated through 555 pages, while LaBute whittled the efforts of himself, David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones to a 102-minute film. LaBute compounds this problem, though, by focusing on the present-day cowboy arachaeology which makes Possession resemble a Merchant-Ivory Raiders of the Lost Ark and giving short shrift to the more engrossing period romance.

Worse, LaBute succumbs to easy stereotyping to shorthand his story (Eckhart's brash researcher actually tells Paltrow's tightly-pinned character she must let her hair down, which she eventually does to heavy-handed effect). In fact, both Eckhart and Paltrow (doing her British accentTM) are probably miscast in a misguided attempt to Americanize this veddy British story. Part of the story's charm is its old-world academia, but LaBute utterly fails to believably depict this world. He fares better with the Victorian-era past, though by all appearances, he's just skillfully aping earlier, better period romances; with so little screen time, Northam and Ehle's better-acted half of the film remains remote.

Though consistently and shamelessly unlikely, the academic mystery part of the plot can be fun, in passing (the title reflects not only romantic ardor but the nine-tenths-of-the-law parries and thrusts of battling academics and auctioneers). But no question remains in my mind that a better script and better-suited cast and crew could have produced a thoroughly entertaining romantic adventure than the oddly misshapen Possession we've been bequeathed.

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