Gen X review possessionHistory is a great fiction, especially when it turns out to be true.

The new film Possession explores the enduring power of love, art and our need to find our own stories. Set in contemporary and Victorian Europe, the film follows 30-something academic Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) as he tries to unravel the romantic life of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam). Roland is a literary Marlboro Man, a tweedy American poet in that awkward phase between professional academia and idyllic wanderlust.

When he comes across two hand-written, personal love letters by Randolph to a supposed lesbian poetess -- Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) -- in a book of poetry at the British Museum in London,
Roland decides to contact a professor working in another department to help him uncover the truth about Randolph and Christabel.

Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a Nancy Drew who went to grad school, got a nose job and bleached her hair. She went into the Women’s Studies program, focused on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory and learned the names of every designer coffee ever invented. One day Nancy, er Maud I mean, meets Roland, a handsome, tortured poet looking for a voice, a dashing, self-loathing, creative sort of gent who wore woolen sweaters, tweed jackets and black turtle necks...

Together they unknowingly embark on a quest to rediscover the power of language. (After all, we cultural theorists have done everything possible to diminish the power of language. Why do we torture the things we love?) They quote Freud, Yates and Calvin Klein with equal fluidity, like any good modern English scholar. They’re not only solving this mystery -- they’re also trying to find a love story they can believe in.

Drawn into the narrative of these other people, Roland and Maud learn to trust their own actions. The act of reading and interpreting Randolph and Christabel’s letters becomes a means of understanding themselves, understanding the simple poetry at work in their own lives. The couple is fine when they’re working at understanding the text, but without the structure of writing, in the real world, they fumble kisses, misjudge one another and drive each other mad, like most of us.

The mystery of poetry and love is at least as powerful as the mystery of death. Interpretation and investigation are closely linked to one another and anyone even remotely familiar with literary criticism knows that art is a kind of riddle. The critic pulls apart words and sentence structures, reads beyond the text, makes the intuitive leaps of faith necessary to truly understand a work of art. Like a detective, he or she ferrets out clues, tries to get inside the mind of the madman...

The true reading is always a personal fiction connecting the author to the reader, bringing the social material object -- the poem, for example -- into the highly psychological and emotional world of imagination and interpretation. Connecting the dots is sometimes as much about the person tying stars together as the stars themselves, and any work of art worth its salt teaches us as much about ourselves as the person who wrote it.

“We came to investigate them, not ourselves,” Maud says, knowing full well that to read is to uncover
secret parts of your self. Our own history is often revealed in the actions of others or in the way we interpret signs.

We are the words we speak, but sometimes language gets in the way, too. Randolph and Christabel’s relationship is both sweet and sad, because the letters that bring them together also tears them apart. Following the paper trail left behind, Roland and Maud try to re-imagine what went wrong, but their own love affair must develop in real time. Their story must be their own, and it must be as simple and lovely as a haiku.

Like all precious things, Possession is delicate and fragile. It’s hard to resist the urge to poke fun of the film’s conceit in an age that transforms good poetry into cheap ads and relishes the opportunity to bring high art as low as possible. It’s far too easy to draw a mustache over the Mona Lisa, and ruining something this fine would be simple, but it wouldn’t be smart.

Sometimes you just need to close a book to really enjoy its ending.


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