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Neil Labute is a director to watch. His debut film, In the Company of Men, was a horrifying yet fascinating portrait of a sociopathic woman-hater. His next two films, Your Friends & Neighbors and Nurse Betty, both had a dark, incisive edge. Now he’s releasing Possession, a romantic drama that escapes — mostly — the black hole of Labute’s cynicism and sarcasm.

Mystery Missive

Versatile and talented, Aaron Eckhart shows that research is funThe versatile and talented Aaron Eckhart plays Roland Mitchell, an American academic studying literature in London. The story begins when Roland finds a handwritten letter in a library book that hasn’t been opened for a century. The letter appears to be a genuine missive from the great poet Randolph Henry Ash, whose life is being celebrated at the museum where Roland is working.

The shocking letter hints that the notoriously faithful Ash (brought back to life by Jeremy Northam) may have had a secret lover after all. Rather than turn the letter in to the academic authorities, Roland keeps it for a while, hoping to figure out the whole story before he goes public.

Roland suspects that Ash’s mystery woman may be Christable LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a painter and poet contemporary with Ash. Roland seeks out an expert on LaMotte, one Maud Bailey played with a suitable British chill by Gwynneth Paltrow. Roland’s found letter interests Maud, and together they set out to discover where this letter will lead them.

The movie’s hook (and the book’s too — Possession is based on a novel by A.S. Byatt), is that as Ash and LaMotte’s romance is revealed, so develops Roland and Maud’s romance.

The Good, The Bad, and No Ugly

Research is exciting. Your average Homer Simpson doesn’t understand this, but Labute shows that curiosity is an itch that demands to be scratched. Roland and Maud are two world experts in their respective narrow fields, and the possibility that they might uncover something nobody has known about for a hundred years is a big thrill. Believe it or not, that thrill carries through the screen and into the audience.

Murder mysteries work on the same principle; a good mystery unravels slowly, piece by piece, until at some point the big picture becomes evident and our curiosity is sated. It’s particularly refreshing that this mystery is an investigation into an illicit romance, and not a murder.

The biggest drawback to this otherwise satisfying story is Labute’s own style. Try as he might, he can’t quite shake out the negativity that permeated his previous films. It doesn’t show up as negativity, but as something bordering on sarcasm. Labute adopts each piece of the story too enthusiastically, and I’m never sure whether the emotion is genuine or fake. The British are too British (“You’re that American who’s over here.”). Maud’s current prick of a boyfriend is too much a prick. The eager American is too eager (“I want to know what happened!”). Is Labute truly this enthusiastic or is he testing our gullibility?

The emotional style comes through visually as well. Labute borrows a technique from Lone Star, where the camera pans from the modern story in, say, a bar, to another corner of the bar where it’s 1950. One time when Labute used this trick I didn’t recognize it because his picture of the past was too pretty to be real. He pans from an modern automobile to a perfectly-restored train. The train is so picturesque I assumed it was some hobbyist’s pet project, operated on weekends for the tourists. I never thought it could be an actual train operating during the late Industrial Revolution. Labute’s view of the past (as the setting for his romance) is so idealized — so far from ugly reality — that even the trains aren’t allowed a speck of grease or soot.

Let Yourself Go

Had I not known about Labute’s penchant for black comedy, I may have been more receptive to the romance in Possession. In fact, there are moments when the movie works so well it’s impossible not to get caught up.

If you can let yourself go at the movies, if you can let yourself get pulled into the excitement, then Possession will be a good bit of entertainment for you. The pace is great; Possession never seems too slow or too long. But it only works if you check your cynicism and irony at the door.