I think we're starring in a love scene, here: Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam get goopy

I think we're starring in a love scene, here: Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam get goopy

In a May issue of the New Yorker, John Lahr reviewed a new Neil LaBute play in which the protagonist tosses his infant nephew into a penguin pool. The point, Lahr wrote, of this drama--as with previous LaBute plays/films In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors--is "to force the audience to stare at the terrible so as to fathom it." In the LaBute spirit, then, I turn to his latest attempt at filmmaking, an adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel Possession. Stare as I might, I can't fathom why anyone paid a purveyor of misanthropic chamber dramas to direct an orchestral romance involving two centuries, eight or nine significant participants, a wealth of poetry, and more literary theory--feminist, deconstructionist, etc.--than LaBute alter ego Aaron Eckhart could pole on his penis. Yes, "he" is in over his "head."

This flailing may be satisfying to viewers who squirmed under the rigid control of the aforementioned cinematic dry humps. What LaBute and screen adapter David Henry Hwang have done to Byatt's material, however, is truly terrible. The Booker Prize-winning novel imagines "romance" in the medieval and late-18th- and 19th-century sense--an emotional quest, a mystery, a celebration of transcendent vision--and stabs at it with 20th-century cynicism and sorrow. Two lonely English academics stumble upon a secret passion: the hidden relationship between a lionized Victorian poet and an obscure feminist fantasist. As Roland (hero of Charlemagne epics) and Maud (poetic love of Tennyson) dig for clues, they're chased by ex-lovers, jealous colleagues, and greedy literary collectors in a merry-go-round that satirizes the habit of adoration as much as it toasts it.

Those of you who relished the book should steadfastly avoid the movie: You may be grimly possessed, as I am, by the spectacle of Gwyneth Paltrow (Maud) and Eckhart (Roland) grinning ridiculously as they gambol around a waterfall to a surge of smarmy orchestration (LaBute being of the "love makes dolts of us all" school). The pair appears even more absurd pretending to ponder some weighty text. But casting is far from the only mishap here. What's worse is that LaBute and Hwang confuse "condense" with "condescend": They've whittled down this juicy tale of romantic adventuring to the point that it's become an "If you like warm fires and long walks in the rain" ad.

Among their sins: They narrow an ensemble piece into a goopy story of parallel love affairs, centuries apart. They slash the literary analysis, leaving the 21st-century lovers to speak haltingly of nothing much but themselves. (Nurse Betty better portrayed a cultural obsession, for all its plodding witlessness.) They lose most of the poetry, which is the alchemic substance for both historical and current romances: Attraction is explained by appearance alone, annihilating the mystery of attraction. They reduce what they don't understand so they can feel in control of it.

Not that LaBute and Hwang actually are, which is obvious from the film's droll pacing. Plot information arrives in impulsive loads, followed by crude, gassy montages. One (not in the book) twist turns on a romance-novel cliché: the hotel-only-has-a-double-bed device. Granted, I would not envy any filmmaker the job of bringing this sprawl to the screen. Possession demands a slow unfolding, perhaps even the six hours gladly filled by the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice. But LaBute's effort insults the viewer. I mean, the film's notion of characterization is a sudden, banal confession. That and, for lack of all else, the actor's career text.

Ehle and Jeremy Northam play Possession's 19th-century lovers Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash; and if I credit them with intelligence, wit, and passion, it's only because Ehle and Northam often play characters with those qualities. That their seductions are hot (to me) is no thanks to LaBute, who discovers flatness in any century. But when the actor is Paltrow, the characterization feels skinny. And when the actor is Eckhart, who has starred for LaBute twice as a ruthless user and once as a victim/admirer of same, I suspect the director is up to something.

In Byatt's book, Roland is a quiet nobody in a nothing job. He and Maud--who has been adored too long for her beauty--must find something true within themselves to love. As if LaBute couldn't bear a weak male lead, Eckhart's Roland is a brash American who casually mocks gays and confesses to having hurt a lot of people. His static arc seems to concern conquest more than quest. Which is maybe why the couple's "happy" ending looks nearly the opposite of Byatt's: not an undermining but--as usual with LaBute--an underlining of the ways men and women hurt each other. Frankly, I've long since fathomed that point.