Reviewed by: Megan Basham
Starring: Tom Hollander, Lena Headey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam | Directed by: Barry Levinson, Neil LaBute | Produced by: David Barron, Len Amato, Paula Weinstein, Barry Levinson | Written by: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil LaBute | Distributor: Focus
Aaron Eckhart plays Roland Michell, a brash, young scholar on fellowship in London. While researching at the British Museum, Roland discovers a letter that has the potential to turn the literary world on its ear. The letter indicates that Randolf Henry Ash, a Victorian poet famous for his Romantic verse and marital fidelity, shared a passionate love affair with the less famous, pseudo-lesbian Christabel LaMotte. As Roland continues hunting for clues of the affair, he finds he must enlist the help of Maude Bailey, Christabel’s great-great-grandniece and an intellectual in her own right.
Gwyneth Paltrow gives a charming performance as Maud, a young woman suspicious of love and wary of men, who hides her insecurities behind a feminist mask. Her warm, timid nature is revealed as she and Roland uncover the passion behind Randolf and Christabel’s letters.
Due to Possession’s story within a story nature, I was torn over how to review this film. Where Roland and Maude seem sincere and tender, Christabel and Randolf’s relationship feels sordid and contrived. In one scene, Randolf tells Christabel that he will wait for her in the church where he will be praying the “holiest” of prayers, namely that she will come away with him for a four-week tryst. This is one of Satan’s most effective lies—that strong feelings justify disobeying God’s laws (the fact that Randolf is praying this in the church even implies that God condones such behavior).
On the other side, aspects of the developing attachment between Roland and Maude are quite admirable. Both are cautious and mindful of their shortcomings. Roland is remorseful over pain he caused in previous relationships, and this keeps him from pursuing love in the present. Maude intimates that she also has a lot of regret (there is inference of an abortion) and that the bond created by a sinful sexual relationship has kept her connected to someone who, under normal circumstances, she would not even like.
From an acting standpoint, the chaste scenes between Paltrow and Eckhart are far more electrifying than those of the older, steamier couple. But the overall theme of the movie is that love, especially adulterous love (illustrated by one completely out-of-place sex scene), covers a multitude of sins. As Christians, we know it just isn’t so.