THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Neil LaBute is a fascinating filmmaker. Since bursting onto the scene with his attention-getting In the Company of Men, LaBute has cranked out one good movie after another: Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty, and now Possession. What I respond to is that - whatever the subject matter of the plot - LaBute's stories are always an examination of the people. It's not about what happens, but about what's going on emotionally for the characters. Possession is different for the director (it's only rated PG-13 and is substantially less cynical than his previous works) but it fits squarely in his body of work.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart star in the Neil LaBute film Possession
Aaron Eckhart stars as Roland Michell, an American scholar working in London. He is studying a well-known poet named Randolph Henry Ash, who had been poet laureate to Queen Victoria. Ash was noted as much for his fidelity to his wife as he was for his poetry. But while perusing an old book in the London library, Roland discovers several love letters written in Ash's hand. He steals the letters and examines them closely, coming to the conclusion that Ash wrote them to another Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte. To prove his theory, Roland enlists the help of Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), an academic who not only specializes in LaMotte, but is also a descendant. At first, Maud thinks the possibility of a LaMotte/Ash affair is ridiculous. After the letters provide some clues leading to other letters, she starts to admit that it could have been true.

The movie intercuts the modern-day story with flashbacks revealing the relationship between the poets. We come to understand why Ash (Jeremy Northam), while sincerely loving his wife, sought comfort in the arms of another woman. We also get a glimpse into the life of LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), who lived a happy existence with her lover Blanche (Lena Headey). She initially holds Ash at arm's length but eventually succumbs to his advances. Their union leads up to a somewhat mysterious end that puzzles Roland and Maud. As they try to put the pieces together, the scholars (both of whom have significant problems making relationships work) find themselves drawn to one another. They are kindred spirits, obsessed with the lives and works of people who lived generations before. This shared passion opens up parts of themselves that had previously been closed off.

Obviously, Possession is not going to be a movie for everybody. Much of the film involves two people pouring through old letters, hoping to learn something. It's not exactly xXx. If the premise intrigues you, though, then this might be the movie for you. I found the investigation fascinating. You don't see this kind of thing portrayed in movies too often. There's something wistful and romantic about the way letter-writing (now a lost art form) can connect us to people who lived long ago. That's one of the things LaBute really targets in the story - the way Roland and Maud can't get their own lives together yet find clarity in the lives of others.

The backstory of Ash and LaMotte is intriguing as well. Their relationship somehow seems simultaneously complicated and pure. They have reasons for their attraction to one another that become more clear the longer it goes on. Things eventually become complicated in ways we don't expect. This leads to the last scene of the movie, an absolutely poetic moment that hints at lost possibilities. I tend to find costume dramas rather dull, but this one is only part of a larger theme and therefore it works. LaBute effortlessly glides back and forth between the period part of the story and the modern day part, connecting them instead of making them seem distant.

Possession is a small, quiet film. It moves at its own pace, allowing the audience to absorb the ideas in much the same way that Roland and Maud absorb the letters. In the end, I believe the title is appropriate. This is a film about people who want to possess love without complications. It doesn't happen for the poets, yet they leave behind words and emotions that reach two strangers years in the future. Those strangers are inspired enough to believe that maybe they can eliminate some of the complications and truly possess love once and for all.

( out of four)

Possession is rated PG-13 for sexuality and some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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