Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:18 pm 
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Mystery of uninvolving adaptation from edgy director LaBute

One question dominates any thoughts about the screen version of A.S. Byatt's 'Possession': what was Neil LaBute doing making this movie? With his 'In the Company of Men' and 'Your Friends and Neighbors' LaBute gave us a series of sharply written, well acted scenes that presented a devastating picture of the cruelty of contemporary American men and women in their relations with each other. In 'Nurse Betty' he went on to show romantic love as a Quixotic - but also charmingly funny -- woman's fantasy, this time creating a series of memorable and preposterous sequences worthy of Jonathan Demme at his best.

But what's LaBute getting at in 'Possession,' other than trying to stretch in yet another new direction, this time that of the glossy Merchant/Ivory, Fowles/Pinter world of sophisticated Brit literary adaptations into film? In what way, if any, does LaBute avoid becoming utterly conventional and slick? And why should a man who has done so well with vernacular dialogue among Americans bother to move his regular Aaron Echhart over to England and have Gwyneth Paltrow turn on another la-di-da English accent?

The short answer is: God only knows. The quite polished but uninvolving movie that resulted doesn't provide material for a solid answer or make one truly care. But there are some clues. As LaBute's adaptation of the Byatt novel works, it's the Victorians -- the real, British, ones, not their American counterparts -- who've got the romance. The moderns are pathetically incapable of generating much passion: Paltrow's character is frigid, and Eckhart's is a man who's withdrawn from the fray. There's some nostalgia added to the old LaBute pessimism here. The sympathy shown to Renee Zelweger's character in 'Nurse Betty' had already suggested that -- a longing on the writer-director's part for a time when romance might have been possible in more than fantasy. Here the longing is further indulged by constantly sliding back and forth between two worlds, that of the secret, passionate Victorian lovers, and that of the cramped, repressed bureaucratic academic sleuths who're investigating their story.

The trouble is that in 'Possession' LaBute isn't working in his element in any sense. We're not getting laughs and we're not getting surprises. Moreover, as an academic couple, Paltrow and Eckart are ridiculous. Eckart might be believable as some things other than an actor or a model, but academic researcher isn't one of them. Though studiously ill-groomed, with his perpetual two-days' growth of beard, he's more than anything casually stylish and athletic-looking, and he seems most himself when he strips off his clothes to dive into a roaring stream and test what's behind a waterfall the Victorian lovers once visited. His enthusiasm for historical sleuthing seems based chiefly on an excessive disregard for legality and a willingness to play with enthusiasm any game that the pretty Gwyneth/Maud wants to play. Paltrow is supposed to be uptight, and that's believable, if you ignore this actress's real life proclivities; but one can never forget that this is a schtick the actress is putting on, and there's no depth to it. At this point in her career Ms. Paltrow been overexposed and over-lionized and she's begun to lose her power to enchant.

Whether the movie would have worked with a different cast is uncertain. Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle are much better than the two American leads as the Victorian lovers, but their scenes are more like a series of tableaux than the full creation of an alternate world that's striven for. There's some serious question as to whether LaBute and his collaborators on the screenplay, David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, were able to do justice to the complex Byatt novel in the 103 minutes allotted. Not only is everything intellectual and academic lost from Paltrow's and Eckart's roles, but so is the intelligence and creativity sapped from the Victorian couple. Surely the screenplay has simplified the academic and literary milieus and introduced a grating new element in making Roland Mitchell (Eckart) American and all his academic associates Yank-baters. All this is very far from the inspired use that was made of Renee Zelweger in 'Nurse Betty,' and LaBute has robbed us of the chills of his first two movies and the fun of his third and left us with little more than some nice period scenes, some pretty landscapes, and a really dashing and lovely old magenta-red Porsche.

August 31, 2002

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