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Love Among the Ruins

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*Possession (R)
Focus Films

A literary mystery/romance based on the A.S. Byatt novel of the same name, Possession succeeds at being lush, romantic, mysterious and literate -- no easy feat when it comes to adapting complex fictional works to the screen.

Surprisingly, it's directed and partially written by Neil LaBute who made a splash a few years back with a series of misogynistic, nasty but fascinating little films that determinedly stalked the dark side of humankind (In the Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors, Nurse Betty). Here, LaBute explores the territory of lyrical romance and his touch is assured but subtle.

Aaron Eckhart, a LaBute regular, sustains the film as Roland Mitchell, a shaggy American graduate student in London to study his favorite poet, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) during the London Museum's centenary celebration of Ash's career. When Roland discovers what looks like a love letter from Ash, a married man, and deduces that it was intended for another poet of the same period, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), he takes his discovery to LaMotte scholar and descendant Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) in search of confirmation.

From here the movie unfolds in parallel plots -- the love story of Ash and LaMotte, and the careful, tentative development of a relationship between Maud and Randolph. As the scholars uncover more evidence, revealing the full-blown passion between the two famous poets, they also open up areas of themselves that have been carefully protected. The dialogue gets a little touchy-feely, enough to make a cynical audience squirm a bit, but the actors pull it off with grace and real chemistry.

Possession is lovely to look at -- not least for Jennifer Ehle's radiant smile, Jeremy Northam's tortured looks and Paltrow's swan neck. A subplot involving two sneaky scholars who hope to steal the artifacts and claim the discovery is little more than a nuisance and probably should have been ignored altogether by the screenwriters.

But when LaBute flips alternately from 1859 to the present, from the ecstatic union of LaMotte and Ash to the more tentative, modern coupling of Maud and Randolph, we are transfixed. Possession is a genuine romance with lush sets and handsome players, set against the backdrop of gorgeously written correspondence and the poetry of two phantom lovers, lost to the world but immortalized in words.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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