in time: Ehle and Northam in Possession.
By Ann Morrow
by Neil LaBute
Everyone in Possession, the film based on the Booker
Prize- winning novel by A.S. Byatt, is in love with words.
Roland Mitchell (Aaron Eckhart), a research assistant at the
British Museum, loves the words of Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy
Northam), a 19th-century poet revered for his devotion to
his wife. Ash was in love with the words of Christobel LaMotte
(Jennifer Ehle), a proto-feminist poet. So is Dr. Maud Baily
(Gwyneth Paltrow), a gender-studies scholar. Some people want
to possess the words, which is the case with Mortimer Cropper
(Trevor Eve), who spends huge sums of money acquiring any
and all artifacts associated with Ash.
Neil LaBute, auteur of the black, cynical indie films In
the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors,
loves words, too, and penetrating dialogue is his forte. The
filmmaker’s talent for verbiage—he’s especially good at deploying
words as weapons—does not, however, make him the right director
for Byatt’s literate and densely fateful romance. Although
he integrates the written correspondence between the dead
poets with grand finesse, the characters themselves are beyond
his caustic reach.
Similar to the far superior The French Lieutenant’s Woman,
Possession intercuts between past and present, following
two couples with parallel lives. In 1859, Randolph meets the
reclusive Christobel at a tea party. Christobel makes a barbed
comment on the famed poet’s lack of regard for women. “You
cut me, madam,” says the offended Randolph. “I’m sorry, I
meant only to scratch,” says the blithe Christobel. The modern
couple is hard-pressed to match this smoldering exchange.
That evening, Randolph stashes two rough drafts of a love
letter in a book that will eventually make its way to the
British Museum, where the letters are discovered in the present
time by an amazed Roland, who impulsively steals them. Roland’s
literary investigation into the recipient’s identity leads
him to Maud, who is equally captivated by the possibility
of an illicit passion between the two poets. Inflamed by mounting
evidence of the long-ago love affair, Roland and Maud fall
into mutual attraction, but then spend more time fuming about
their respective relationship phobias than romantically parrying.
Paltrow, her well-practiced British accent in place, is nicely
cast as the icy but vulnerable Maud. The problem is Eckhart,
or rather, his freewheeling American character. Unlike the
repressed British bookworm in the novel, this Roland seems
like a happening guy, not at all the type to lose himself
in dusty manuscripts, poring over the lives of others while
he stagnates in his own. He’s even shaken free of the stultifying
relationship that casts an atmospheric pall in the book; onscreen,
he is worshipfully attended to by a comely museum secretary.
That he would steal the letters seems completely in keeping
with a heedless American, rather than being an inexplicable
act of possession.
The script (cowritten by LaBute and David Henry Hwang) does
a good job of covering key scenes from the novel’s convolutions,
while consistently missing its sense of mystery and inevitability.
The film’s deliberate invocation of The French Lieutenant’s
Woman only underscores the workmanlike progression of
the plot, in which Maud and Roland must keep a step ahead
of the unscrupulous Mortimer and his accomplice, Fergus Wolfe
(Toby Stephens), Roland’s academic rival at the museum. It
doesn’t help that sly, sexy Fergus is more intriguing than
is not without its pleasures, however. The Victorian world
is sumptuously designed, and the stirring narration by Ehle
and the reliably dashing Northam have enough romantic sweep
to carry over to the film’s prosaic present day. As he proved
in Nurse Betty, LaBute can be an imaginative craftsman,
but some of the footage here looks so awful—the view of Maud
and Roland through a streaky car windshield especially—it’s
as if the director decided to work only on the 1860 part of
the film and leave the rest of the shooting to an underling.
Rushed and klutzy, the climactic graveyard sequence dispossesses
the story of its high Victorian drama. The only thing LaBute
unearths is a fresh appreciation for Masterpiece Theater.
Directed by Miguel
Justine Last (Jennifer Aniston), the titular heroine of this
amusing black comedy, isn’t especially virtuous. When presented
with the time and opportunity, she proves capable of being
as devious and selfish as the next person. It’s just that
in the nondescript, rain-washed Texas town Justine calls home,
the next person is likely to behave even more badly.
Proving that satire isn’t dead, The Good Girl presents
a stinging portrait of bland, strip-mall America. Justine
works, joylessly, at a low-rent version of WalMart. She passes
the hours behind the cosmetics counter giving free makeovers
to customers who, mostly, won’t buy anything. Her coworkers
aren’t any happier with their jobs, but they find outlets
for their boredom. No-nonsense Gwen (Deborah Rush) obsesses
about her diet; creepy Corny (Mike White) promotes his Bible-study
class; sly Cheryl (Zooey Deschanel) abuses customers at every
opportunity. When not otherwise engaged, Justine just stares,
glumly, into space.
Life at home isn’t much better. Her husband Phil (John C.
Reilly), a good-natured, dimwitted housepainter, spends his
spare time getting stoned with buddy Bubba (hound-dog-faced
Tim Blake Nelson). Justine is just aware enough of the greater
possibilities in life to be dissatisfied.
Unfortunately, 30-something Justine is not wise enough to
see that fellow retail inmate Holden (Jake Gyllenhaal), a
22-year-old college dropout with a J.D. Salinger fixation,
might not be one of those greater possibilities. Naturally,
Holden fancies himself a writer; unfortunately, his bitter
stories all have a trajectory suspiciously similar to The
Catcher in the Rye. The ultimate cruel fact for Justine,
however, is that young Holden’s impassioned alienation and
handsome looks are likely to be the best chance for escape
she is ever going to get.
Thus, a passionate affair plays itself out in the unromantic
confines of motels and department-store stockrooms. Though
the lovers hold on tight to their mutual disaffection, they
are clearly at cross-purposes. Holden rages; Justine purrs.
Add the fact that there are no secrets in a small town, and
disaster is unavoidable.
Director Miguel Arteta cleverly plays to TV star Aniston’s
strength: She can deliver tart dialogue with perfect timing.
Since she can’t really do much of anything else—even her tears
are less than convincing—he wisely places most of the dramatic
weight on the stronger actors, notably Reilly as her sad-sack
husband and Nelson as his weird friend. The supporting players
bring all of the film’s satiric snap. Roxanne Hart and John
Doe are hilarious as Holden’s perpetually mute parents. Zooey
Deschanel gives a star-making performance as the clerk who
brings a touch of subversion to the service industry; she
sweetly thanks one customer, “Fuck you very much.”
The film ultimately succeeds as satire because it stays grounded
in its bleak vision of reality. When Justine is finally forced
to choose her future, her decision is as dramatically true
as it is inevitable.
Am I Watching?
by William Malone
The first two-thirds of this murkily lit thriller are creepily
intriguing, as we encounter puzzling deaths that resemble
those from the Ebola virus, with victims bleeding through
their eyes and noses after suffering through heightened states
of fear playing on their deep-seated phobias. Each victim
has recently logged onto an internet site called fear.com,
where he or she has met a beautiful female guide who seduces
with hints of S&M and promises of participation in a perverse
live event, the torture and onscreen murder of a beautiful
young woman. Finally, there is the spooky presence of Stephen
Rea as Alastair, a serial killer with a host of sharp instruments.
There are a lot of dots to connect, and much of it must be
done in settings that rival Seven for dark, cold blue
tones. Trying to make the connections are a detective played
by Stephen Dorff, whose seriousness helps suspend disbelief,
and a pathologist played by Natascha McElhone, whose mesmerizing
beauty delays us from regaining that disbelief—for a while.
In convenient plot developments, two of their colleagues contract
a nonbiological “virus” that apparently enters the brain through
the eyes while they are focused on the titular internet site.
In exactly 48 hours, they suffer grisly deaths, as have several
other individuals who have logged onto the site that punishes
everyone, whether or not they have a voyeuristic desire to
Up to this point, the attempt to graft a cyber ghost story
to a cyber serial-killer thriller has a raw appeal. However,
the plight of a kidnaped woman who is being tortured online
by the sickening Alastair (Rea’s hamminess is both eerie and
annoying) becomes increasingly upsetting, and lessens the
enjoyment of the mystery in direct proportion to the main
characters’ foolish actions. In the hoary horror tradition
of going alone into bad places, both hero and heroine separately
log onto the site that has a perfect score in killing people.
Finally, confusion reigns as to what is really going on. With
both the stakes and the rules of the game unclear, the suspense
sputters and Fear Dot Com crashes.