Posession (2002)   


Literature has a long history of trying to romanticize adultery. The truth is, adultery is still adultery. It's an important enough sin that it made it onto the big 'Do Not' list in the Bible. God made that rule for a reason, to prevent disasters such as Possession from ruining people's lives. Most films try to persuade you it's all right for two people to conduct an affair so long as they're in love, which is why Possession is a pleasant surprise. If you come in believing it glorifies adultery, you have another thing coming. I was surprised how much it demoralized the concept of romantic affairs. I have to agree with the director when he says it's a tragic story of missed opportunities and misunderstandings. Possession is a beautifully acted, wonderfully scored, and visually delightful film. It's just the kind of movie secular critics love: forbidden passions, elusive mysteries, long lost love letters, and the ability to traverse time and space, to be in two romances at once. 


That alone makes it a wonderful screenplay and an engaging idea, but alas, adultery, martial deceit, lustful passion and innuendoes toward homosexuality ruin a visual masterpiece. Had a little more conservative restraint been taken with the love scene, and a little less emphasis placed on a lesbian relationship, I might have recommended it. Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American in London who has just been passed over for a teaching position by an old enemy, Fergus Wolfe (Toby Stephens). Roland is enthralled with his favorite poet, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), who is world-renowned for his romantic dedications to his wife, poems now on display. Roland comes across a book of Ash' containing half-completed love letters ardently professing his admiration for an unknown woman he met at a dinner party. Through research and speculation, Roland believes the woman to be Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), another poet. His research leads him to Maud Baily (Gwyneth Paltrow), a London researcher who lives very much by the book and has forgone the concept of romance by being burned once too often.


Instead she steeps herself in the romantic writings of her Victorian ancestor Christabel LaMotte, whom she esteems very highly. Maud is doubtful an exchanges of letters could have ever taken place. Christabel was a feminist and lesbian according to the history books. Together their discoveries lead to a surprising walk in the footsteps of the amorous poets in a trip across England. They have fallen under the same spell as the lovers, but will they follow in their romantic steps? In the meantime, through a series of flashbacks we witness the actual first meeting, sparks of romance, and eventual tragedy that befall Ash and LaMotte.  Films of this nature are ordinarily difficult to follow, dancing back and forth between parallel worlds in which two separate stories entwine into one. Possession does it very well and rarely does the pace lag. The contrast between the Victorian era and modern world is paradoxical but not as cleverly evident as Kate & Leopold.


Ironically the film bestows the highest amount of passion and romantic boldness to the Victorian era, leaving the two modern characters almost straight-laced in comparison. The trailers hint at a romantic affair, but allude to none of this film's surprises... or its downfalls. The most complex and obvious problem with Possession is that Ash is a married man. Since we all know the verse in scripture condemning adultery, I won't bother elaborating. He carries on an affair behind his wife's back with a poet who lives with another woman. Their relationship is never graphically shown, but nor does it come across as innocent.  As well versed in Victorian politics as I am, I have never once heard of a lesbian couple. There was Oscar Wilde and his lovers but even that was kept tightly under wraps. This is where political correctness meets Victorian sensibilities and collapses like a house of cards. While the lesbian affair is only hinted at through dialogue, it makes the pacing uncomfortable. I found myself wishing they'd have underplayed it more. This film is very flawed and immoral but it's also very thought provoking and sad. The ending conclusion one reaches is of extreme sorrow for Ash and LaMotte. If they had only done it God's way, if they had kept His guidelines, their lives would have been profoundly altered! They would have been spared the anxiety, the pain, the anger, the frustration, the scandal, the remorse.


Unfortunately, the film also implies through LaMotte that their adultery was justified, since she would rather endure the lifelong separation after a night of passion than to have never known such intense fire. Restraint is shown on the part of filmmakers until it comes to the actual love scene between LaMotte and Ash; it's extremely graphic. Maud and Roland are forced to share a room due to cramped conditions at the inn, which leads to some fooling around on the bed. There's mild innuendo and a few gay jokes. The filmmakers make the most of Victorian architecture and display prominent nude works of art in the background of several scenes; one involving a woman on the wall is particularly distracting. Three abuses of Jesus' name are practically the only profanity. LaMotte and Ash attend a sance but interrupt it with a violent quarrel. The lure of Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam, and Jennifer Ehle will be too great to bear for costume drama enthusiasts.


It is a thought-provoking and often surprising mystery, and the final closing scene is by far my favorite. It's a tender, tragic, beautiful ending, but bear in mind LaMotte's own words of warning as you watch this impassioned story play out: 'No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.' The nature of the story and heated love scene, will leave a deep imprint.  

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