LOS ANGELES, Aug. 15 (UPI) -- The denizens of the movie business are routinely derided as soulless philistines with no appreciation for great literature. Yet, judging by how many prestige novels the film industry buys up each year and turns into predictably unprofitable movies, it's clear that movie people love literature a lot more than the paying public does.
The greatest movie adaptations are typically made from middlebrow novels with terrific characters and storytelling, such as "The Godfather" and "Gone with the Wind." Yet, that didn't stop Neil LaBute, the director of "Nurse Betty" and misanthropic independent films like "In the Company of Men" from having a go at A.S. Byatt's spectacular 1990 novel "Possession: A Romance." It opens in a limited release in 200 theatres on Friday.
One of the most distinguished British works of recent decades, "Possession" is a celebration of the written word. Byatt impersonates the prose and poetry styles of about a dozen different characters from two centuries. It's a tour de force, but not exactly natural film material.
LaBute wisely resists the temptation to try to do full justice to the 555-page book. Instead, he sticks to the basics of the clever and romantic plot, slashing away almost everything else to bring in a surprisingly fast-paced movie that's only 102 minutes long.
"Possession" is a literary detective story. Roland (played by Aaron Eckstein of LaBute's other films) is an impoverished American post-grad working in the basement of the British Museum. He's an old-fashioned "New Critic" helping prepare an enormous edition of the letters of Randolph Henry Ash, a famous Victorian poet modeled on the manly and rational Robert Browning (portrayed in flashbacks by Jeremy Northam of "Gosford Park").
Roland's job is to poke around in dusty archives for answers to his professor's soul-crushing questions such as, "How many jars of gooseberry jam did Ash's wife make in 1859?"
Roland discovers a letter implying that Ash had a secret love affair with a reclusive spinster poetess named Christabel LaMotte, who wrote about fairies (a sort of a Emily Dickinson/Christina Rossetti-type played by Tony Award-winner Jennifer Ehle).
LaMotte had languished in obscurity until female academics decided she must have been a lesbian and thus created a feminist cult around her. Roland consults with Maud, a Gender Studies professor and expert on LaMotte (played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Oscar winner for "Shakespeare in Love").
Apparently, it's heterosexist to imagine that the masculine and logical Randolph and the feminine and intuitive Christabel were attracted to each other. Yet, as Roland and Maud follow their role models around the lovely English countryside looking for clues, the two diffident and nervous academics' discoveries about their subjects' grand passion ignite similar feelings in them.
This dual plot is a fine gimmick that was also used at about the same time by playwright Tom Stoppard in the masterpiece of his maturity, "Arcadia." The device allows writers of a conservative satirical bent like Byatt and Stoppard to contrast dithering modern academics -- distracted by identity politics, French literary theory, career worries and fear of commitment -- with the larger souls of the 19th century.
The Victorians had so little sexual freedom that the few decisions they were allowed to make about whom they went to bed with aroused the most intense feelings. Young moderns have so much sexual freedom that they can worry that allowing themselves to feel true ardor would be imprudent since somebody better might always come along.
Unfortunately, Eckstein and Paltrow aren't quite ideal for their roles.
I harp on casting, but consider how much getting it right adds to the nifty new surfer girl flick "Blue Crush." The lovely and delicate lead actress Kate Bosworth clearly lacks the big bones and slabs of muscle that are prudent for anybody who aspires to tangle with the terrifyingly massive Hawaiian waves for a living. But that's the point of the plot: Bosworth's character has all the agility but none of the confidence needed to win. The movie triumphs by making us feel how much courage it takes her to overcome her perfectly reasonable fear of being crushed like a bug.
In "Possession," however, the actors are too sexy too early in the movie. The book describes Roland as beaten down by his poverty and demeaning job and Maud as confused by the anti-male resentments of her lesbian colleagues. The movie would deliver a bigger emotional payoff if we could watch his inner masculinity and her inner femininity emerge as they uncovered Ash and Christabel's love affair.
Eckstein is simply too handsome with his constant three days' growth of beard and a dimple on his chin larger than Kirk Douglas' and John Travolta's combined. He's more suited to play an Enron energy trader. Paltrow can't do sexual ambiguity at all. She's doesn't really have the classic beauty often attributed to her, but she absolutely radiates adorableness.