movies: Literal Love 

Neil LaBute's "Possession" may unreel like a period-perfect, Merchant-Ivory clone for dummies, but it's also pretty satisfying.

Through poetry, letters and journal entries, the book effortlessly swings between past and present.

Because of the inherent time constraints of the movie form, LaBute had to pare down the poetry and try to make the story less complex. But in distilling the book for the screen, LaBute and his co-writers have drained the life nearly out of it. What's left is a kind of "French Lieutenant's Woman" for dummies, a Merchant-Ivory-style film that's period pretty, but lyrically lacking.

Sporting a breathy English accent and ever so precisely applied lipstick, Gwyneth Paltrow plays Maud, the female half of the scholarly sleuthing team. Something of an ice princess, Maud is preoccupied with her research on the life of a lesser Victorian poet, Christabel LaMotte.

LaBute-regular Aaron Eckhart is her counterpart Roland, who's studying fictitious Victorian poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash. Though Eckhart manfully wears that academic three-day stubble as well as a hideous corduroy jacket, complete with elbow patches, he never looks at home in his character. LaBute does everything but have Eckhart pull out a pipe, but to no avail. The actor simply looks uncomfortable. To accommodate Eckhart's all-American looks, Roland is no longer British but now a Yank, which leads to some unintended and awkward humor. (Where's Roland, somebody at his workplace wonders. "Off trafficking drugs," says a professor. Because, ha-ha, that's what all Americans do, even those darn academicians in corduroy blazers.)

After Roland discovers the Ash-LaMotte connection (in a mysteriously undusty old tome, mind you), he and Maud begin their sleuthing and their on-and-off attraction. In contrast, the poets at the heart of the mystery get far less screen time than Eckhart and Paltrow, but they strive mightily to wring all the romance, pain and poetry out of their desperately underwritten roles. Filmed in elegant flashbacks, Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle torment themselves over their illicit yearnings.

It leads us to the confounding paradox of "Possession:" How do you make an audience care about writers, if you can't or won't show what they write? Although the story would be nowhere without it, LaBute seems afraid to deal with the literally lovely language of poetry. Doubtless, some studio exec showed him market research that scared LaBute: hordes of multiplex audiences running away screaming from any movie that hints of requiring brain function.

Not that "Possession" isn't a satisfying little romance. It is, and several moments in it are visually stirring: There's a lovely scene where letters are tossed about on the wind, offering a subtle, lyrical reminder of the fragile, ephemeral nature of both paper and lovers.

While this reviewer has railed and reviled LaBute's trademark bite, that's exactly what's needed here. Without it, "Possession" feels shallow and small next to the book that inspired it. But that doesn't mean the movie is without merit, not by a longshot. For the more literate moviegoer, "Possession" will be a fairly satisfying little guilty pleasure. S ***


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