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Somewhere in time: Ehle and Northam in Possession.

Words Aren’t Enough
By Ann Morrow

Possession
Directed 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 Roland.

Possession 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.

Ain’t That America

The Good Girl
Directed by Miguel Arteta

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.

—Shawn Stone

Why Am I Watching?

Fear Dot Com
Directed 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 see death.

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.

—Ralph Hammann


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