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POSSESSION (2002)
U.S. Release Date: August 16, 2002
Distributor: Focus Features
Director: Neil LaBute
Writer: Neil LaBute
Producer: Barry Levinson
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Lena Headey
Running Time: 1 hour and 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (sexuality and some thematic elements)

Love Letters
by Billy Reeves

Neil La Bute's Possession involves 19th century love letters that spawn a 21st century romance. The modern tale is carefully blended with the past through flashbacks brought to life by the letters to create a vision so charming and heartfelt, that it's hard to believe it was helmed by the creative force behind the bitter Nurse Betty and In the Company of Men.

Possession is itself a love letter, one that is able to transcend such themes as adultery and deceit to provide its audience with something it won't expect—a love story that is neither scathingly scripted nor forced.

I haven't read the Booker Prize-winning novel by A.S. Byatt that is the basis of this movie, so I won't be making any references to it. All I can give is an account of is what I saw, and what I saw was very entertaining.

Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is a modern-day American scholar working in Britain who discovers an original letter written by fictional 19th century poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). This is an important discovery because Ash was renowned as a model of marital fidelity, and the passionate letter was to a woman other than his wife. The recipient was another fictional 19th century poet and lesbian Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle).

Roland takes the letter to the rather uptight Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman not only considered an expert on LaMotte but also a distant relative of hers. Maud is skeptical of the connection between the two poets, but reluctantly teams up with Roland to unravel the mystery. As more clues and secrets are discovered, flashbacks give the audience a vivid look at the events surrounding the concealed affair. Meanwhile, a present day attraction develops between the very different Maud and Roland.

What is fantastic about this movie is the chemistry between Paltrow and Eckhart. It never appears clumsy or contrived, and manages to transform less than steamy kissing scenes into brief moments of heated passion. Their body language and believable appeal for each other captivate you whenever they are on the screen.

Equally as compelling is the more melodramatic affair between Northam and Ehle. However adulterous their involvement is, you are coerced by their poetic and fairy-tale like love for each other to forgive them. The dialogue between the two rarely gets above a whisper the entire length of the film, but the performances by both are so powerful it's as if every moment is a loud emotional outcry.

Paltrow employs a perfect English accent that has lost none of its pre-Oscar potency. She plays Maud as very icy in the beginning, and elicits quite a few laughs with her sarcastic British wit a la Gosford Park. Even more impressive is how she manages to successfully transform Maud from a man fearing ice queen to someone who has literally "let her hair down."

There are quite a few laughs to be had. Eckhart summons several effective one-liners and is the butt of some brief anti-American humor. The only really dark element to the movie is LaMotte's lesbian lover Blanche (Lena Headey). Her jealous and possessive nature with LaMotte creates yet another obstacle for the secret lovers to overcome.

There is something so refreshing about the way this story is told. It has all the right things in all the right places. It's the antithesis of the typical Hollywood romances that are usually polluted with shallow characters and recycled ideas.

With a title like Possession, you may not be surprised to learn that several things are stolen over the course of the movie. Roland steals the original letter from the London Library, among other things, and there is even a grave-robbing incident. But these petty crimes are nothing compared to the picture's greatest heist as it just might steal your heart.


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