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Possession

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart; Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey
Screenplay by David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones and Neil LaBute
Based on the novel by A. S. Byatt
Directed by Neil LaBute
website: www.possession-movie.com

IN SHORT: Neil LaBute makes a chick flick. An amazing work. [Rated PG-13 for sexuality and some thematic elements. minutes]

But first, a true Cranky story: We had in our life, for the good part of a decade, a woman who stayed by our side while we recovered from the broken neck and regained the use of paralyzed limbs. She was our guide when we sat to watch "chick flicks," since the good ones would leave her in a puddle in no time at all. She'd sit for other movies, of course, but refused early on to do so for anything by Neil LaBute. She considered his work borderline misogynistic. The relationship didn't end in any way close to what we would have liked, in fact we didn't exchange a word in all the years that preceded her early death from cancer. [If we had, now that would have made a rockin' chick flick....] We wonder what she would have thought about Possession, perhaps the most brilliant execution in this genre that we've sat through in all the years we've been reviewing.

Picture a man dressed in Victorian garb walking through a grassy plain while a voiceover reads poetry written by this character and orchestrated strings weep. Yep, no doubt this is the first warning shot of a monster chick flick coming over our critical bow. It's also the first scene in the first of a pair of love stories, one set circa 1859 and one in the present day. While the former fairly reeks of Miramax style production values, the modern story is sharp and raucous as as any written by Neil LaBute and more than makes up for all that annoying orchestration. This man is Randolph Henry Ashe (Jeremy Northam), poet laureate to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. A hundred years on his work, including a celebrated cache of randy late in his life writings, is being celebrated in a retrospective at the British Museum. There, under the watchful eye of a Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey), an American scholar named Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) spends his time answering questions about the life of the poet, and his wife. That means extra trips to the Archives in the Library, where Ashe's books are kept. In one of those books Michell finds a two page love letter, addressee unknown which, in a moment of recklessness, he steals. Tracking down the relationship hinted at in this previously unknown letter will form the core of the modern story, which brings Michell together with Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), herself an authority on another known poet of the Victorian period, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Thanks to a diary entry kept by Ashe's wife Ellen (Holly Aird), Michell thinks that LaMotte is the object of the Poet's affection.

One problem with this thesis: Ashe was unquestionably devoted to his wife and, as far as all the records show, never looked at another woman. Ever. Second, Christabel was just as devoted to her partner, in a time when the word "lesbian" was never, ever uttered. That partner, Blanche Glover (Lena Headey) drowned late in life and Christabel disappeared for years afterward. Michell's inquiry is as outrageous as it is presumptive, and the time he spends with the self-described "repressed Brit" Bailey, herself a distant descendant of LaMotte, is as much an exercise in disproving the theory as it is a building block for a very modern relationship yet to develop.

But ... in the Bailey homestead, a rather impressive manor in the Lincolnshire countryside, Bailey and Michell make a discovery which has the potential to set the poetic word on its ear. Solving this mystery; proving the identities of the Victorians involved provides us with a modern chase that, given the hard edge of LaBute's writing, should keep every male in the audience happy even as the Victorian soap plays out in ways that are so structurally magnificent that, once you get past the dripping strings, isn't hard to bear from the male angle, either. Top it off with another subplot, a modern one centering on another pair of scholars who have sniffed out that Michell and Bailey ave found something, and want to steal their thunder.

Summing up the high points, briefly: Lesbianism, Adultery, a Murder, a Suicide, Sexual Repression and a pretty good Mystery are offset by traditional chick flick items that would've had our old femme friend in a puddle a foot deep, even at a Neil LaBute film. The Victorian segments were a bit much for this guy who preferred the modern sequence and the eventual unraveling of Paltrow's "repression".

More important, despite anything we didn't like about Possession, it's a film we still remembered with clarity days after seeing it. That's the exception in what we do -- most movies are gone from memory in 24 hours, and that's why the numbers kick up a notch for this one...

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Possession, he would have paid . . .

$6.50

Teens and those of you without at least a pair of relationships under your belts should stay away. The rest of us grownups have our choice of which story to immerse ourselves in. Traditional or Modern. LaBute balances both masterfully and edits the pair together in a manner that one never overwhelms the other. Something for everyone.

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