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<i>Possession</i> Gives Victorian Romance, Passion a Modern Twist - 2002-08-31

An internationally acclaimed novel of secret romance and powerful passions is now a feature film starring Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow. Alan Silverman has a look at Possession.

"I shan't forget the first glimpse of your form. I have dreamt nightly of your face. I can not let you burn me up. Nor can I resist you."

Adapted from the 1990 novel by A.S. Byatt, Possession is a story of unexpected love experienced by two couples: one in Britain today and the other in Victorian time.

Gwyneth Paltrow again shows her adeptness with an English accent as Maud, a tightly wound contemporary academic and expert on Victorian poet Christabel Lamotte. She is surprised when American graduate researcher Roland, played by Aaron Eckhart (his nationality is changed from the book), claims to have discovered love letters suggesting a secret tryst between Christabel and a Victorian poet-laureate, Randolph Henry Ash.

Paltrow says she found fascinating contrasts and similarities between her character's contemporary world and the society of more than a century earlier.

"There were so many conventions, so many rules, so many sociological reasons why people weren't free to live and I find interesting the concept that the more rules that are implemented in society, the more free and expressive people are in their personal lives, " she said. "Now we have none of those societal conventions and yet we impose upon ourselves all kinds of complications that make it very difficult. So I thought that was a very interesting irony."

As the two researchers delve into the past, they find themselves sharing the powerful and tender emotions experienced by their poetic counterparts.

The lush romance of Possession is, perhaps, a bit surprising coming from director and co-writer Neil LaBute, whose films include the disturbing drama In The Company of Men and the violent tragic-comedy Nurse Betty. A fan of the A.S. Byatt novel, LaBute says he was drawn to its relationships and the challenge of filming such a dense and literary work.

"I find words sexy, interesting and moving so I had no problem saying there is going to be a lot of language in this," he admits, " but we need corresponding pictures as well. We need to try and seduce the audience with everything that we've got: a collection of really good looking people, good looking locations, interesting literate, moving story....whatever arsenal you have, you throw up there," he explains. "We knew we were unabashedly making a romance, which is of late, I think, something people don't want to say they're doing because they don't want to be laughed at. It's just like in romance how it's hard to say 'I love you' because you feel you might be snickered at. You run that risk when you put your emotions on the line."

LaBute says he relied on notes from author A.S. Byatt as a guide in adapting the novel. Star Gwyneth Paltrow calls the book a valuable resource.

"If you do something that derives from a book, then you have a wealth of information in the book to inform your character," she explains. "You get ideas and colors from reading it."

But every film adaptation runs the risk of alienating fans of the book; and Jennifer Ehle, who plays Christabel, says it's important to distinguish between the two.

"I read the book and then put it away because I knew there was so much of it that was not going to be included and in my head we were always trying to tell the story to people who hadn't read the book," she says. " There's nothing you can do about the people who have read the book. It's a wonderful book and if they feel very passionately protective about it, I completely understand; but they're completely different pieces of work and they have to ultimately stand alone."

"No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.

Possession also features Jeremy Northam as the passionate poet-laureate. The cinematography is by Frenchman Jean Yves Escoffier and the eclectic musical score is by Lebanese-born Oscar-winner Gabriel Yared.