It has been about 10 years since I read the novel Possession, one of A.S. Byatt's finest works. It is densely layered, sad and romantic; a heady brew of academia, poetry and love.
The movie has been simplified; for the novel's dense plot could not translate to the screen intact. And the nature of some key characters has been changed in typical Hollywood style - though the changes do make cinematic sense in this case.
In fact, I found that treating the film as an exercise distinct from the novel, it stands up well. It is not the same super-charged experience as the novel, which draws you utterly into its worlds, but it is a worthwhile attempt to distil some of the essence of A.S. Byatt's work, even thought it will appeal mainly to people who have never read the original.
The novel traces the relationship between a modern couple, both academics, as they in turn seek to uncover the secret relationship of a key poet of the Victorian age and his clandestine lover, a woman previously thought to have been exclusively lesbian.
The major change from book to film is in the characterisation of the modern couple. Academic Maud Bailey is, in the book, quite severe and prickly, and by no means a conventional beauty. She is played here by Gwyneth Paltrow, who just cannot be severe and prickly and not beautiful. She has the English accent down pat, but she is playing a totally different sort of character - though doing so exceedingly well.
That's one change. The other is even greater. In the novel, Maud is paired to a young English research assistant in Rolan Michell, who is withdrawn and reclusive - in fact, he seems quite an unlikeable, unattractive rude creep. In the film he is suddenly tall and reasonably handsome, with nice manners - the only negative is that he's become an American. This 'new' character is played proficiently by Aaron Eckhart.
These two changes do, however, work as they keep alive on screen our interest in their interactivity. Perhaps when it comes to cinema, we are really only interested in the lives and affairs of reasonably attractive people?
Actor Jeremy Northan as the Victorian romantic poet Randolph Henry Ash shares acting honours with Gwyneth Paltrow. His is a subtle, complex characterisation without shorthand allusions to the conventional image of a poet. There is a depth here, and a feeling of genuine grief, always underplayed and more real because of that.
His lover Christabel LaMotte, is played by Jennifer Ehle, made up to appear as one of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood's models. Her acting is mainly through makeup. Unlike her consummate performance as Elizabeth in the latest television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, this role seems to escape her. She reads the lines, smiles a lot, and seems to not really be sure what movie she's making.
On the whole this is a very sound dramatisation of a dense, complicated and deeply beautiful novel. The camera work is particularly fine - some of the scenes of the English countryside are amongst the nicest committed to film. The director and co-scriptwriter, Neil LaBute, had previously given us the very different but delightful Nurse Betty; this shows he is well prepared to tackle much deeper stuff.