Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel of the same title by A.S. Byatt Possession follows Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) as they uncover a secret relationship between two Victorian poets Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) and Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). Contemporary scholarship had pegged LaMotte as an early lesbian feminist and Ash as a happily married member of the new upper-middle class but when Roland discovers a love letter from Ash to a woman who's not his wife the upstart American scholar can't resist tracking down the object of the poet's affections. When Roland discovers that the love interest might have been LaMotte he enlists the help of noted LaMotte scholar--and descendant--Maud and together they track the lovers' progress from drawing rooms to billets doux to a month-long tryst in Yorkshire England. As they search for the story of long-past love they discover something of that emotion in the present as well although the relationship between Roland and Maud seems almost antiseptic compared to the warmth and passion between Ash and LaMotte. Still both stories are wonderfully intriguing; it's just too bad that the novel's subtle lyricism proves difficult to translate to the screen.
While the contrast between the heat of the past and the cool of the present is partly the point of both the film and novel Eckhart and Paltrow take the theme of modern-day emotional distance a bit too far. They never really give the audience a sense that their connection is real so the parts of the film that focus on them fall a bit flat. Nonetheless Paltrow is well cast as the cool scholar Maud and she gives an adequate if uninspired performance in the role. Of course there's little to get inspired about in her co-star Eckhart who displays an inappropriately flippant demeanor as the American scholar/wannabe poet. Despite his efforts to charm the character comes off as wooden and there's very little chemistry between him and Paltrow a fact that's just highlighted by the intensity of the fire burning between Northam and Ehle. Their scenes make the movie; it's pure magic watching two of the most talented actors out there today enact the period portions of the film. Northam absolutely sizzles and Ehle is every bit as good as Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant's Woman--in fact she very much resembles that film's main character Sarah although the production notes make no mention of what seems an obvious influence.
In making Possession director and screenwriter Neil LaBute took on a gargantuan task. Despite a few minor omissions (in the novel Maud doesn't just wear her hair tightly up; she hides it beneath a turban) and one major gaff (in the novel Roland is British not a swashbuckling American upstart) the movie captures the spirit if not the form of the book. Admirably LaBute resists the temptation to dwell on the philosophical and chooses instead to focus on the plot a decision that truly benefits the film. The pacing is excellent; the story never loses steam or rambles on and on which must be a real risk in a story about academics. The transitions between the Victorian and modern segments are finely tuned if derivative and they build gracefully as the movie goes on; the nearer the sleuths come to solving the mystery the more closely entwined the past and the present become until in the end they come together metaphorically at least in a surprising twist.