Neil Labute's made a career out of stripping male-female relationships down to sinew and bone.In his first flick, In The Company Of Men, he exposed the darkest recesses of boys-club misogyny, while Your Friends & Neighbors delved into the seamy underbelly of yuppie mating patterns.
So his newest project, an adaptation of A.S. Byatt's Booker Prize-winning pomo romance, Possession, may seem a bit out of character. But the study of two highbrow academics who fall for each other while investigating a twisted clandestine affair between two Victorian poets is ripe with repressed sexual potential.
Unfortunately, LaBute blows it.
Possession juxtaposes a pair of storylines set a century apart. Perennial LaBute golden boy Aaron Eckhart (the deliciously redneck boyfriend in Erin Brockovich) plays Roland Michell, a struggling American scholar in modern-day London who's obsessively studying the life and work of Victorian poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash.
When Michell accidentally stumbles upon a never-before-seen love letter to another poet shoved into one of the very-married Ash's archival tomes, he realizes he's revealed a secret that could, in his words, "rewrite history."
Michell turns to Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a brilliant British ice queen and an expert on the object of Ash's affections, proto-feminist, pseudo-lesbian scribbler Christabel LaMotte. The two set out to uncover the truth, reconstructing the poets' narrative through correspondence and artifacts.
As the historical love story between Ash (Jeremy Northam) and LaMotte (a glowing Jennifer Ehle) plays out in beautiful flashbacks, the repressed academics enact a parallel plot of their own, drawn together by their shared textual fascination.
LaBute has recruited excellent talent to create the period design, and the heaving-corset sex scenes between Northam and Ehle are Basic Instinct-calibre hot.
He handles Byatt's mock-Victorian poetry with admirable dexterity, and the superficial glimpse into nerdy academia is amusing.
But Eckhart's just not believable as a literary scholar -- his animated monologues about Ash sound like a surfer relating his newest gnarly moves, dude. While Paltrow pulls off her cool-as-a-cucumber genius with aplomb (and another dead-on British accent), LaBute fails to allow the connection between the two to develop gradually enough to be plausible.
Sure, they've sublimated their sexuality into books 'cause they've got intimacy issues, but that's all surface stuff. I kept wanting to see the blood and guts of these relationships splayed out on the table.
Weren't the Victorians all about dissection and firstname.lastname@example.org
POSSESSION directed by Neil LaBute, written by David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones and LaBute based on the novel by A.S. Byatt, produced by Paula Weinstein and Barry Levinson, with Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle and Lena Headey. 102 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (August 16). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 69. Rating: NNN