Neil LaBute’s film version of the A. S. Byatt novel Possession fails miserably
Possession, Neil LaBute’s film version of the much-admired A. S. Byatt novel, is a failure in nearly every respect. It may not be too surprising to find a movie shortchanging a work of literature, especially a thick novel that is so convolutedly “literary.” But this is one movie adaptation that not only waters down the original but also tries to force that into a vehicle for the “vision” of this prematurely celebrated would-be auteur.
LaBute has pared the novel down to its most filmable (and commercial) elements—two offbeat love stories and a costume drama—which only makes it that much more difficult to see why a writer-director who trades so heavily in nasty-humored misanthropy would bother with such material in the first place. Attentive viewers may be able to spot LaBute’s cynical stamp on the results, but reducing Byatt to romantic clichés leaves LaBute’s anti-romanticism looking like little more than a series of cheap shots utterly lacking in drama.
The most blatantly damning aspect of LaBute’s movie is that it gets misfires from everybody in what turns out to be a pretty good cast—Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle as two previously unrelated 19th-century English poets and Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow as the modern-day literary scholars digging into their biographical secrets. Eckhart is a LaBute regular playing a character who has been rewritten as an American for the movie, but he fares as poorly as any of them. Paltrow gives a wan performance that never gets beyond what is snotty and shallow in the character she plays. Eckhart has a certain credibility as a studiously scruffy graduate student, but he too comes up empty when matters turn to emotional relationships. The ethereal-eyed Ehle is so repetitiously on the edge of tears that all emotional credit is lost, and Northam, a past master of romantic swagger, seems unfocused and confused here.
It may all make a certain sense as an anti-romance, but LaBute’s Possession does it with all the subtlety of a turd in a box of candy. The slapdash mise en scène and the goofy sentiments of the final reels succeed only in compounding the incoherence of this misbegotten project.