Poetry slammed

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Some people think of colleges as ivory towers, full of absent-minded academics who can't adequately cope with the "real world."

As if professors didn't face the same challenges as people in other lines of work! Shaky job markets, low-paying positions, arrogant bosses, jockeying for promotions – what's not "real world" about all this?

"Possession," the brilliant 1990 novel by A.S. Byatt, takes place in the real academic realm.

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The main character is a would-be professor named Roland Michell, who hopes to snag a decent university post through small-time scholarship on Randolph Henry Ash, a second-rank Victorian poet. He spends his days scrutinizing obscure texts, tutoring students, and wondering if he'll ever get a full-time job.

Perusing an old book, he stumbles on a letter tucked into its pages – written by Ash to an unidentified woman he obviously felt attracted to. Ash was a solidly married man with a respectable Victorian life, so Roland is shocked by his discovery.

He's also tantalized. Eager to solve the mystery, he contacts a more successful scholar named Maud Bailey, and together they ferret out Ash's hitherto unknown affair with a 19th-century poetess. Their quest takes them on a tour of Ash's haunts and hideaways, and stirs up several other academics who have vested interests in the case.

The movie adaptation of "Possession," directed by Neil LaBute, takes place in neither the academic world nor the so-called real world. The film unfolds in Hollywoodland, where no kind of reality intrudes for long, in either the modern-day or 19th-century scenes.

Every character is a simplified set of easily grasped personality traits. Every setting is bathed in creamy light and picturesque shadows. Intellectual obsessions with books, knowledge, and the ineluctable power of language – the driving forces behind Byatt's novel – are seen as mildly engaging interests pursued by reasonably smart folks whose speech and behavior never escape screenplay formulas.

Ditto for the casting. Roland, a melancholy man with a wary look, becomes Aaron Eckhart, a dynamic dude who couldn't look wary if he tried. The formidable Dr. Bailey becomes the adorable Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ash's imposingly Darwin-like visage morphs into Jeremy Northam's photogenic features. Jennifer Ehle looks and sounds right as Ash's lover, but she gets the shortest shrift of all the major characters. Most of the acting consists of winning smiles and wistful pouts.

The problem with "Possession" isn't that it's filmed in a lackluster way, but that it shouldn't have been filmed at all. Byatt's novel is an adventure in language, telling its story through a kaleidoscopic array of Victorian-style poetry and prose, alongside gripping accounts of the characters' activities and escapades.

Some kind of venturesome experimental movie could be made from these materials, but there's no point in extracting the bare bones of Byatt's plot for purposes of bland Hollywood romance. The more you love language, the more this is a picture to avoid.

• Rated PG-13; contains sex.

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