The only thing I can think of that can adequately explain the
critical drubbing this film received upon release is the absolute
difficulty in taking something so monumental as A.S Byatt's novel
and transforming it into a film for modern audiences used to much
The novel is huge, both in actual size and thematically, and
there are many aspects of it that are simply not cinematic. This
adaptation is not as good as something like Sense and
Sensibility, but stands head and shoulders above such
abysmal adaptations such as the first two Harry Potter
films. To adapt is to transform a text for the cinematic medium.
I think that, all things considered, the writers have not done
too bad a job here. (I know there's a whole world of A.S Byatt
fans out there disagreeing with me right now...)
Roland (Aaron Eckhart) is a scholar of Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy
Northam), former poet laureate who was famed for his fanatical
devotion to his wife. During the course of his research Roland
uncovers proof of an infidelity and goes on a hunt to find out
who the woman may have been. A series of historical coincidences
leads him to believe the woman is lesbian poet Christabel LaMotte
(Jennifer Ehle), and he teams up with sceptical LaMotte scholar
and Christabel's descendent Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) to find
out the truth. Told in a series of flashbacks, the Ash/LaMotte
affair is gradually revealed. The modern day scholars are swept
up in tracing the path of a past love, only to find themselves
becoming inevitably attracted to each other in the process.
To be fair to critics of the adaptation, I have to agree that
the excising of much of the character's motivations from the screenplay
does confuse the issue somewhat. We really don't understand Roland's
emotional detachment (he explains it in the film merely as having
been hurt before), Maud's coldness or the phenomenal literary
and personal significance of the discovery that the film's narrative
centres around. We are required by the film to take these things
on faith, and sometimes it seems too much to ask.
From a lesbian perspective, the film doesn't fare too well either.
One more dead lesbian onscreen (LaMotte's distraught partner played
by Lena Headey), one more woman "rescued" from her alternative
sexuality. These thoughts did go through my mind. However, during
the course of the film I gradually dismissed my concerns. If the
filmmakers (and the author herself) would hae just stopped using
the word "lesbian" all the time this would be fine.
Christabel does not fit this or any other category. She is a woman
with passions, who chooses to follow rather than repress her desires,
whatever form they take, and this is as refreshing a view of that
as I've ever seen in a period film.
What we get is a fascinating reversal of what we usually see
in romantic fiction. This point in our history is supposed to
be a time of sexual freedom, but that freedom is buried underneath
a mountain of sexual politics. The Victorian-era was supposed
to be repressed, but the natural secrecy of the time provided
the perfect cover for acting out one's wildest passions. Here
the Victorian lovers provide all the sensuality and detail that
their modern day counterparts lack, thus showing them up as cold,
unfulfilled human beings. They turn to love as the only excuse
for doing the inexcuseable, which is to betray their "spouses"
and embark on their life's passion. This betrayal inevitably ends
in tragedy, but then these stories always do.
Christabel is Jennifer Ehle's second feisty, warm and utterly
sensual period portrayal, having imbued Elizabeth from Pride
and Prejudice with so much energy and life in the popular
1996 BBC remake. Though she is in danger of being typecast as
a corset-wearer, she is the picture of what I imagine a Victorian-era
independent woman should be like; buxom, lucious and witty, rather
than tight-lipped and thin-waisted as much of film history would
have us believe.
By contrast, Gwyneth Paltrow sheds her usual smugness and overt
sexuality for the role of a modern day repressed scholar of poetry.
Maud is only just figuring out that immersing her life in work,
without feeling any of the romance of what she is studying, is
missing half the point. As the film unravels so does Maud, emerging
tentatively from her shell rather like a turtle sticking out it's
neck, expecting to be repeatedly attacked.
An ex-lover of Maud's refers to her as the "ball-breaker",
presumably because she believes in all the feminist ideology she
has gained through Women's Studies scholarship. At first I believe
we're meant to suspect that her studies of a lesbian poet have
contributed to her obvious distrust and dislike of men in general.
I was glad to see this stereotype thrown out quite early in the
film, as there's nothing more frustrating than having all the
female identities in a film formed in respect to their relationships
to or with men. Maud, like Christabel, is independent yet trapped;
Maud by her own boundaries and insecurities, and Christabel by
the times in which she lives and the values/guilt that imposes
There isn't a lot of lesbian material here to enjoy, except for
the pure pleasure of watching Jennifer Ehle. A sexually ambiguous,
tortured soul and free thinker, Christabel LaMotte will always
be one of my favourite literary characters. Now, thanks to Ehle,
she has graduated into one of my favourite cinematic heroines
as well. Utterly romantic and extremely sensual, Possession
is for people who like their onscreen romances to be complex and
intelligent. Unfortunately for some people, especially for people
with no love for literature, poetry or Gwyneth Paltrow, that could
translate into boring.
Got a comment? Write to me at email@example.com