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Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart are enchanted by good lighting.

© 2002, USA Films
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A film directed by Neil LaBute ("In The Company Of Men," "Your Friends And Neighbors," "Nurse Betty") normally would include misogyny, emotional violence, and some kind of role for actor Aaron Eckhart. LaBute's newest picture is "Possession" (IMDb listing), based on the novel by A.S. Byatt, and thankfully (or is it mercifully?) only one element from his earlier films remains here.

"Possession" tells two interlocking tales. The first involves an American researcher, Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), who is studying the works of beloved Victorian poet, Randolph Ash. During one routine library visit, Roland come across some handwritten letters from the purportedly faithful Ash to an unknown lover. With the help of another academic, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), he sets out to uncover the facts surrounding this mysterious affair. In the course of their research, the two find themselves succumbing to the power of love. In a parallel story, we travel back to the event in question, as Ash (Jeremy Northam, "Gosford Park"), falls head over heels with a bi-sexual admirer (Jennifer Ehle, "Sunshine"), and proceeds to sacrifice the rest of his life in pursuit of her.

Like any director in fear of repeating himself into obscurity, LaBute has chosen a romantic drama, and a period one no less, to unleash his caustic fury on unsuspecting audiences. But that fury never comes, replaced here with a deft directorial hand and delicate touch. Odd for a man that included a scalping in his last film. LaBute's sudden warm side suits him fine, as "Possession" turns out to be his finest film to date. Without the expected rambling nihilism, LaBute crafts a picture, that, while lacking his usual thumbprint, at least offers him an opportunity to grow as a filmmaker. The change is jarring, but it is welcome.

While structured as just another literary romance, "Possession" has an invigorating mystery at the heart of it. In fact, the scenes where Maude and Roland search for the truth are the finest moments in "Possession." Like "Masterpiece Theater" meets "Nancy Drew," this little taste of a modern thriller elevates the material from another meditation on the social traditions of our society to a pulse-quickening whodunit.

The most crucial element in "Possession" is exactly where it fails the most: chemistry. Eckhart and Paltrow are two gorgeous performers, both in talent and looks, but as an onscreen couple, they set off no fireworks. These are two good performances to be sure, but the film hangs on their romantic growth, something that I never truly bought. Even more hurtful to the Paltrow/Eckhart chemistry is found on the flipside of the film, with Northam and Ehle creating studied, rapturous work as the doomed lovers. Granted, they have the advantage of playing in an era when love and sex weren't cynical, but LaBute's script suggests everlasting love for Roland and Maude, and the film never lives up to that. "Possession" is a terrific film from LaBute, but maybe he still needs to work on his passionate side just a little bit more.

Filmfodder Grade: B+

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