09 October 2015

Possession (2002 film): Not Much of a Romance

A few months ago, I read A. S. Byatt's excellent novel Possession, and so I watched the film this past week. My review of the book will go up on Monday, making this a little back-asswards, but right now it's the only idea I've got for a blog entry, so here you go.

Byatt's novel is about reading, and the pleasures of reading, and the investigation of reading. What does it mean to encounter a text, and what does it mean to perform research on a text. You might be surprised, then, that someone would decide to turn it into a film, but in 2002, Neil LaBute directed an adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. But it's not just possible for the film to be about what the book was about: the scene at the beginning where we see Aaron Eckhart in a montage of book-reading is almost comic in its attempt to depict visually a very non-visual experience, and wisely, the film never attempts such a thing again. Part of the title refers to, I think, how you can be "possessed" by what you read, and the film just doesn't communicate that.

Which might be okay: films do different things than books, and part of the process of viewing an adaptation is coming to accept that. But man, if LaBute just totally fails to come up with something interesting to replace it. The novel is about a pair of literary critics investigating an historical romance between two Victorian poets, and the film unspools their investigation in parallel with the romance of the poets. The stuff from the past is quite nice, even if the shorter nature of film means it doesn't quite have the complexity of the relationship in the book. But the film turns the present day story into a romance, too, which it might get away with it if it wasn't incredibly dumb. Seriously, there are some less convincing romances in the history of film (I'm looking at you, Attack of the Clones), but probably not a lot.

First off, Gwyneth Paltrow's character:
Uptight ladies... has anyone ever told you that you would look better with your hair down? Seriously, what is your deal and why do you wear your hair in buns? Also: loosen up! What's the point of being a female if you don't look nice for the men?

Seriously, this is the most cliched and uninteresting angle on romance I can think of at present.

Secondly, Aaron Eckhart's character:
The third time that, completely unprompted, this guy told someone that he just didn't do relationships, my wife and I started to laugh. Like seriously, dude, no one even asked. He spends the whole  finagling the topic of relationships into conversation so that he can explain that he doesn't do them. "They're just not for me," he says ruefully, staring off dramatically into the distance.

This could almost kinda work, I think, if there was some attempt to explain it, but nope, halfway through he just decided he likes Gwyneth Paltrow and his supposed hatred of relationships is never mentioned again. While Paltrow's half of this plot is completely cliche, it is impossible for me to even imagine what this half of the story was even going for. Like, what was his deal? Why was he surprised that Paltrow didn't want to date him given he spent the whole movie pointedly dropping into conversation the fact that he didn't want to date anyone. Who knows! He's too busy brooding his manly feelings.

Unfortunately, this film makes the present-day romance most of its point (seriously, the climax is almost perfunctory, while in the novel it's a brilliant, exhilarating feel-good moment).

Um, well the Victorian stuff was nice, though. Has Jeremy Northam ever been in anything good? He's one of those people who looks like he was born to act in a period drama.

I couldn't find a picture of him in his hat on Google Images, but he had an awesome hat, too.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent period movies to see Jeremy Northam in include:
    -- An Ideal Husband (1999)
    -- Emma (1996)
    -- Gosford Park (2001)