It's hard to believe, in this day and age, that somebody actually bankrolled a wide-release film about a pair of English literature researchers and a pair of Victorian poets. And not only that, but that American filmmaker/playwright Neil LaBute, best known for his scathing sexual satires The Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors, was chosen to direct it. We live in strange times.
Possession, based on the A.S. Byatt novel, weaves its story across two eras: in contemporary London, an American research assistant (LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart) teams up with a priggish poetry expert (Gwyneth Paltrow, once again donning a British accent) to unravel the mystery behind their discovery of long-lost love letters between Queen Victoria's poet laureate and a famous poetess who not only had no known connection to said poet laureate, but was known to be a lesbian. (Imagine Robert Browning having a passionate affair with Edna St. Vincent-Millay and you'll get the idea.) As they unearth more clues, the film flashes back to the two tragic Victorians (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle). Did they or didn't they?
This isn't exactly high-stakes storytelling – the "scandal" that would break out, should the affair be substantiated, will only ruffle the feathers of a few dozen poetry scholars – but the film makes the mystery intriguing, and romance is the whole point here anyway.
Possession is a highbrow date movie that, although it bogs down occasionally (especially when documenting the budding romance between Eckhart and Paltrow, who lack chemistry), can also sweep you off your feet, particularly during its Victorian era scenes, filled with sweeping vistas of the English countryside and some passionate language indeed. Northam's performance is a highlight, as is Gabriel Yared's lush score.