Movie Postmortem #6: POSSESSION

by John S.

Movie Postmortem is a monthly series which reviews certain films that showed promise but misfired (critically and/or commercially) upon initial release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Possession

THE CASE HISTORY: England, 1990. Novelist A.S. Byatt publishes a romantic mystery that quickly becomes a bestseller and ultimately wins the prestigious Booker Prize. The novel revolves around two modern British academics who discover overlooked love letters from the Victorian era which suggest two of the most famous poets of that period were romantically involved. As the two scholar-sleuths in the present follow the illicit trail of the secret lovers from the past, they find themselves repeating history and gradually falling in love themselves. In essence, they are “possessed” by the historical affair they are investigating. Hence, the book’s title: Possession.

Given the book’s success and its very intriguing premise, it is courted for a silver screen adaptation. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Byatt’s book is about 511 pages long and very dense and verbose, with pages and pages of original poetry representing the work of the two Victorian poets. To say that trying to shape the novel into a viable feature-length screenplay is challenging would be an understatement. Writer David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly, Golden Gate) works on several script drafts, with Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor, The Firm, The Interpreter) and Gillian Armstrong (The Last Days of Chez Nous, Little Women, Oscar & Lucinda) successively expressing interest in taking on directorial duties. Unfortunately, the various parties move on and the project is stuck in development quagmire for several years.

Enter Neil LaBute, the American director of such unapologetically edgy and bracingly matter-of-fact films like In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, and Nurse Betty. LaBute seems a very unlikely choice to helm an atmospheric, ethereal British romance that is also a cerebral mystery. Nevertheless, he and writing partner Laura Jones ultimately transform Hwang’s working drafts into a final version that gets the greenlight. LaBute and Jones essentially do this by heeding notes from Byatt herself about how the leading male character needs to be different in the film than he is in her book: more take-charge and assertive. LaBute goes even further and changes the character’s nationality, essentially morphing him from a reserved Brit to a swaggering American.

Casting begins. Brits Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle are picked to portray Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte, the Victorian poets whose secret affair is uncovered gradually in the present-day. Americans Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart, are chosen to play Maud Bailey and Roland Mitchell, the modern academics who are pulled into the romantic fray from the past. With the casting of these two, though, it seems like the film version of Possession will be a bit more “Hollywood Hills” than “Hampstead Heath.”

Spring 2002. Possession’s trailer debuts – and it’s very good: equal parts sensual, intriguing, and mysterious. In short, it seems to suggest everything the book was. Finally, on August 16, 2002, about twelve years after the source novel was first published, Possession goes into limited release in North America before eventually going wide domestically on August 30. Despite that great trailer and some decent reviews from certain quarters, reviews are largely mixed, and the film quickly drops back in the late summer box-office race with a total global take of about $14.8 million ( about $22 million today). By the start of the fall-winter Oscar race, Possession is all but forgotten.

So what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS: Contrary to some critical opinions, Neil LaBute’s decision to Americanize the character of Roland Mitchell isn’t the real problem with Possession. Indeed, turning Roland into a brash Yank actually somewhat livens up the proceedings. Sadly, the true major weakness of Possession is the lack of any kind of spark between leads Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart.

To be clear, both are fine individually. Paltrow has pretty much perfected a British accent from her various roles, and her rendition of Maud Bailey as an aloof academic whose cool exterior masks deep vulnerability is touching. Paltrow’s secret weapons are her eyes, which always seem to have a hint of sadness in them, whether she is laughing or glaring or just thinking. It’s this undertow of melancholy that wins you over to her side, and Paltrow effectively uses it to humanize Maud where another actress might have settled for the usual Unapproachable Ice Princess cliche.

Similarly, Eckhart is dynamic and very likable as Roland Mitchell. He is the rough-edged Yin to Maud’s sleeker, more polished Yang. He sometimes comes across more like an undercover reporter posing as a literature academic to sniff out a story rather than a true, passionate scholar of the poetic word, but that is likely just a side effect of the character’s change in nationality.

However, as a couple they simply do not connect. And that’s a big problem when the film’s slogan is “The past will connect them. The passion will possess them.” This isn’t their fault, because it is hard to predict who will or won’t have chemistry. It is certainly not just about looks and talent, as these two prove. Make no mistake, though: chemistry is easy to spot when it is present. Couples, real or cinematic, who have chemistry make you lean in with interest because the spark between them is not only noticeable and believable. It is also palpable. Sadly, it is missing here between Paltrow and Eckhart.

Fortunately, the secondary couple in Possession has chemistry – and in spades. Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle play the couple from the past, and they have a slow burn that intensifies as the story (and their affair) progresses. In fact, so much more compelling is the love story from the Victorian era that whenever the narrative switches back to Maud and Roland in the modern era, the film slackens. Which is a shame, because had Paltrow or Eckhart been paired with someone they really clicked with, their plot thread of two emotionally-guarded people who gradually lower their defenses to meet each other half-way would have been a great complement to the romantic history they are tracking. Instead, we get only half of a good romance.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: The lack of any kind of romantic spark between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart really hampers Possession. The much stronger connection between Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle helps the film and ultimately saves it, but the result is a movie that pales in comparison to its celebrated literary source material.

NEXT MONTH’S CASUALTY: Eat Pray Love – “Let Yourself Go…”

How can a movie gross $80 million domestically, over $200 million globally, and still feel like it didn’t do that well? Well, for starters, if it stars America’s Sweetheart, Julia Roberts, and is based on a book that sold a bazillion copies across the Universe and inspired a huge cottage industry that is both fascinating and terrifying in equal measure. Get your passports ready.

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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