In The Company Of Victorian Poets

Neil LaBute's "Possession" is bad, but not spectacularly bad, which is disappointing. It's tempting to think that having made his name with two smart, unpleasant movies about misogyny and misanthropy ("In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors"), LaBute took on A. S. Byatt's romantic best seller because he wanted to destroy it from within and demonstrate once and for all what a lie and a nuisance love is. Sadly, his "Possession" isn't some brilliant act of sabotage. It's just an ordinary failure.

The movie concerns a crass American researcher (Aaron Eckhart) and an uppity British academic (Gwyneth Paltrow) who plod through the love-hate mating dance while attempting to prove that a legendary Victorian poet and famously devout husband (Jeremy Northam) actually did some bodice ripping on the sly with a minor poet (Jennifer Ehle). LaBute hurries between love stories. Paltrow and Eckhart do some Nancy Drew sleuthing and some wooden emoting. The dead poets come to life, but get so little screen time that their strand of the movie plays like a trailer for a Merchant-Ivory picture. LaBute believes that the Victorians were less repressed than we are. His modern lovers, however, seem the victims not of neurosis but bad writing. ("I want to see if there's an us in you and me," etc.) LaBute never does justice to Byatt. Still, he works out clever ways for one pair of lovers to depart a scene via steam train, say, just as the other couple arrives in a car. It's a nifty device--and an apt metaphor for a movie that doesn't know if it's coming or going.