Love Among the Stacks

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What happens when a filmmaker with the gift of malice tries to make a love story? Can his fine, scaly hand carry off a caress? And if he can, will he connect with a film audience that long ago shrugged off amour?

Neil LaBute's rep, or rap sheet, is as a chronicler of cruelty. The two films he has written and directed (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) and his two best-known theater pieces (Bash: Latterday Plays and The Shape of Things) are cunning investigations into the way people hurt people. Now, in his version of A.S. Byatt's Booker prizewinning novel, Possession: A Romance, he has ventured into Merchant-Ivory territory: that foreign country called the English past, where passion bursts from the corset of propriety and love is the most beautiful work two poets can create.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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The poets are Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), a 19th century literary light with a famously serene marriage, and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a less renowned word magician. Imagine an affair between Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti and the scandal that would have rocked the 1860s — or the literary furor it might stoke today if the news were finally to come to light. That's the notion that drives two modern scholars, the American Roland (Aaron Eckhart) and the British Maud (Gwyneth Paltrow), deep into a long-submerged cache of love letters and finally into their own furtive embrace.

Falling in love with fiction is a favorite LaBute theme; in Nurse Betty, which he directed but didn't write, the heroine convinces herself she is a soap-opera character. In Possession, the literary detectives Roland and Maud are stand-ins for any novel's attentive reader. Turning the pages, we become involved in a vicarious espionage of the heart and then surrender to the spell of fantasy made real through a weaving of words.

The trick in a movie aiming at romantic refinement is to avoid being either pushy or inert. There Possession fails, certainly in the modern half of the story. Actors preen overmuch; Paltrow again imitates Englishness by sucking in her suave cheeks; Eckhart (a LaBute regular) works too hard at being the outspoken American abroad. Gabriel Yared's music is forced to do the actors' emoting for them — a sure sign the director doesn't trust the story to carry the feeling.

But he does place his confidence in Possession's period scenes. For here the film goes persuasively old-fashioned, with a train-station declaration of love, a deathbed revelation and some dirty digging in a cemetery. And the actors are fully alive to the inherent romance. Northam, as in The Winslow Boy and Gosford Park, so easily embodies Randolph's upper-class elegance that you might never know it had gone out of style. Ehle, the most beguiling of young Brit actresses, uses her tight smile to convey the pained radiance in Christabel's wisdom. These actor-poets make love like chamber music — two cellos playing each other. "Did you not flame," Christabel asks Ash, "and I catch fire?" When Possession finds its true home, lodging in the convulsive certitude of Victorian romance, it does indeed catch fire — and warms any viewer in the mood for love.