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Literary critics worked up a lather over Possession, A.S. Byatt’s 1990 novel about two modern academics who work up a lather when they discover the secret love letters of two Victorian poets. It was clear that Hollywood would eventually try to transform Byatt’s scholarly prose into panting screen images.

Possession on film had all the makings of a disaster. Then Neil LaBute decided to direct it and to collaborate on the script with David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones. Yes, that Neil LaBute, the hard-core moralist who gave us In the Company of Men, about two guys who fuck a deaf girl over, and Your Friends and Neighbors, about two couples who fuck each other over. It’s true that LaBute went a little softer with Nurse Betty — if you don’t count Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock scalping that guy at the beginning — but Possession called for delicacy in delineating the clash between the romantic past and the raunchy present. You expect LaBute to ace the modern part of the story — he doesn’t. Even with Gwyneth Paltrow — a crisp Brit accent in place — as Maud Bailey, who specializes in Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). And even with LaBute regular Aaron Eckhart as Roland Michell, the brash American (British in the novel) who knows all about Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), the poet laureate to Queen Victoria. It’s Roland who finds the letters that suggest Randolph — known for poems dedicated to his wife — was having it on with Christabel. And that Christabel, though involved in a lesbian relationship with her friend Sabine (Elodie French), may have had a love child with Randolph.

Geez, those Victorians. That’s the thing with Possession: The alleged prudes stir up all the heat. As Maud and Roland retrace the steps of Christabel and Randolph’s affair in 1859, a spark is supposed to ignite between the cool academics. LaBute and cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier do a remarkable job showing the two couples practically breathing the same air. With one camera swipe, Maud and Roland enter a bedroom just as Christabel and Randolph exit.

But despite the good efforts of Paltrow and Eckhart, the modern love story pales beside its predecessor. Ehle, an actress of dazzling grace, and Northam, an actor born for Byronic romance, bring real fire to their roles. Did the Victorians have hotter sex than we do? You bet, says this movie. Made in an era of casual screwing, Possession aches for a time when secret lovers could turn their passion into unbridled poetry. Maud and Roland’s search for an unknowable past makes for a haunting literary detective story, but LaBute pulls off a neater trick in Possession: He makes language sexy.

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