Unread by me, an A.S. Byatt novel, Possession, became in 2002 a weak film directed and co-written by Neil LaBute.  Such LaBute films as Your Friends and Neighbors and Nurse Betty are dismally offputting, while this one is merely poorly written.

In it, two literary researchers in London (Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow) try to solve the mystery of whether an illustrious 19th century poet, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), began an extramarital affair with a fellow poet, the lesbian, or bisexual, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle).  It so happens he did, and so does Eckhart begin a licit if dullish affair with Paltrow, playing an Englishwoman.  The crosscutting between time periods yields on screen the two researchers more often than the two luminaries, which is a shame since Ash and LaMotte are the more interesting couple—and with Northam and Ehle outacting Paltrow.

The script, one of whose writers is the playwright David Henry Hwang, has its people saying things like “I have known incandescence and must decline to sample it further.”  To the scenarists’ credit, though, elsewhere the dialogue shines.  But characterization matters little here—less, in fact, than dialogue.  We wish to know more about Ash, this fictitious poet laureate to Queen Victoria, a man whom Paltrow’s character calls “a soft-core misogynist.”  Ostensibly a feminist, Paltrow’s character herself is a zero.  Then there’s Blanche (Lena Headey), Christobel LaMotte’s lesbian companion who turns out to be mostly a punching bag.

Possession was not a mature work for LaBute.  He may have avoided his usual misanthropy, or whatever it is, but why do it in an adaptation of a book by A.S. Byatt?  Generally his directing is not only good but expert, and once again he gets plenty of vitality from Aaron Eckhart.  Luciana Arrighi did the spot-on production design, Jean Yves Escoffier the cinematography.  Thanks to this pair, the look is modestly painterly—appropriate for a small but artful opus.  Alas, a small but artful failure.  LaBute is a gifted man with a baffling career.