There’s a great moment in “Best in Show” where Jennifer Coolidge (the actress best knows as Stifler’s Mom, for everyone at home keeping score) discusses marital life with her impossibly geriatric husband, who incidentally has the most shrunken, mottled head ever seen on a living person. Asked about the couple’s common interests, Coolidge deadpans, “We like to talk. And not talk. We could talk or not talk for hours.”
That’s the way I feel about “Possession,” the new film adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name – these characters could talk or not talk for weeks. Not that they show any hint of flagging – rather, director Neil LaBute has created a work in which couples from two different centuries manage to patronize and infuriate viewers, sinking into the vapid realm of hoary stereotypes and hackneyed conventions.
It would be very hard to blame any of this on the source material, which translates from its sedentary literary roots as well as could be imagined. Byatt’s novel follows a pair of modern literary scholars, Maud (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Roland (Aaron Eckhart) as they trace the path of the two fictional Victorian-era Romantic poets, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) and Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), whose works they respectively study. Maud and Roland slowly uncover evidence of a secret relationship between the 19th-century writers. The parallels between the past and present speak clearly to the self-imposed isolation of the two scholars, who manage to open up to each other, albeit in a halting, timid fashion.
Unsurprisingly, the visualization of a love story for the academic set proved to be far too pleasant a task for director LaBute, whose previous work (“Your Friends and Neighbors,” “In the Company of Men”) centers almost exclusively around highbrow concepts like misogyny, selfishness and sexism. It seems that LaBute was physically unable to leave the material as he received it, and thus makes a change that is as inexplicable as it is irritating – he makes Roland an American.
And not just a research assistant from across the pond lacking in Paltrow’s Sloane Street accent – Eckhart plays Roland as a capital-A American, complete with the requisite attitude problems, unshaven temperament and kleptomaniacal tendencies. Even aside from the obvious point that no self-respecting Yank is named Roland in the first place, LaBute seems to have gone out of his way to infiltrate the novel’s protagonist with supposedly American quirks – inappropriate smiles, ample sarcasm – that detract from the plot points unveiled onscreen.
Conflict, though, is LaBute’s lifeblood, he rides out that formula here to produce discord of the most cheap and manufactured kind. Antagonistic, smarmy Brits are everywhere in “Possession” – library clerks and colleagues alike seem to openly despise Eckhart’s American roots, and they tell him so in no uncertain terms, engaging in unrealistic, forced banter that drags the film into pointless and repeated nationalistic encounters.
The cinematic transitions between the 19th and 20th centuries, were similarly manufactured, both singularly unimaginative and transparent. LaBute manages to undercut both the novel and his own characters by engaging in numerous flashbacks – placing the exposition in the past pulls the allure of discovery away from the present, and often leaves the two scholars poring over foregone conclusions.
The payoff is in the camera tricks, which really aren’t all that tricky in the first place. A door is closed by Maud, and re-opened by LaMott; a car goes under an overpass as a train rumbles over the bridge. You see them coming from a mile away, and the end result of the time-traveling is to the detriment of the film as a whole.
Then there’s the talking, of which there’s plenty. On one hand, you have the countless voiceovers used as a substitute for the novel’s printed letters; Paltrow and Eckhart read these earnestly enough, but sheer volume alone suffices to induce the drone. The film presumes far too much upon the visual appeal of watching someone writing with a quill pen at a desk. “Possession” didn’t need to be all martial arts and explosions, but it also didn’t need to be “You’ve Got Mail.”
On the other hand, you have the dialogue between Roland and Maud. For some reason, LaBute has consciously trivialized and stereotyped their conversations, making each a poor representative of their cultures. Roland is supposed to be a successful intellectual, yet uses the word “like” before half the things he says.
Like a good Englishwoman, Maud is dripping with repression for much of the film, shocked at the irreverent antics of her companion, yet is somehow won over eventually. Introduced to Roland’s boss, she is convinced to eschew her former use of “Dr. Bailey” in favor of a more familiar introduction. “Why don’t you put your hair down, Maud?” Eckhart asks. The film is seemingly oblivious to this and other such cliched metaphors that describe their relationship, thus polluting their interchanges.
In the end, all the talking and not talking is to no real end. The appeal of the novel was in the little things – the thrill of each new discovery, the different writing styles incorporated into a fluid whole by Byatt. LaBute has taken inquisitive British themes and transformed them into a film in which the only real question posed is “How much do you think I could bench press?”