Modern button-pusher tackles bygone era

Director Neil LaBute shelves abrasive portraits for an audience-pleasing plot

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Say what you will about Neil LaBute, he's always surprising.

His new movie, "Possession," tells the story of two modern-day scholars (Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart) who unearth a long-ago love affair between two poets (Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Northam) of the supposedly straitlaced Victorian era. It's a gentle tale, with just enough sexual content to qualify for a PG-13 rating.

Who would have expected this from Mr. LaBute, who became a button-pushing star of indie filmmaking with "In the Company of Men" and "Your Friends & Neighbors," scathing portraits of contemporary life at its most abusive and abrasive?

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Then again, LaBute has been eyeing the mainstream lately. His last movie, "Nurse Betty," was a fairly straightforward comedy. "Possession," based on A.S. Byatt's novel, provided him with an audience-pleasing plot and an opportunity to edge away from the contemporary world that has dominated his previous films.

LaBute is a former academic himself, and a fan of Victorian art and literature. "I like the sense of a very strict society that created a lot of passionate literature and passionate fine arts," he said in a recent interview. "In times like when [the modern "Possession" characters] are living, there's such a permissive society that we tend to be blinded by the possibilities we have, put off by having everything available to us."

LaBute's casual shirt and rumpled trousers are up-to-the-minute American, but you might detect a touch of the Victorian in his fullsome beard and sober face. He certainly finds the bygone era fascinating.

"The ends and beginnings of centuries are often the most turbulent times in society and politics," he says. "Much of our great writing and art has come from those times as well.... People tend to do more probing work when there's something to rail against."

LaBute first read Byatt's novel as a student at Brigham Young University, where he discovered his own tendency to rail against restrictions.

"A student's job is to rebel," he says, "to challenge authority at all times. When I was a student, they were very interested in a certain kind of art – here's the box in which you can operate, don't climb over the edge.

"When I'm told that, I tend to not only climb over the edge, but to burn the box on my way out. I don't like to be told what to do, I guess!"

He's not the anything-goes sort of rebel, though, and he sees a cautionary message in the nasty behaviors shown by his early films. "The kind of disposable society that we have [today] is alarming in some ways," he says. "The Internet was expected to create a stronger sense of family and community ... but I think it's created a global world of shut-ins. People search for each other while they stay in their homes with the lights off. The physical contact of meeting someone, working with someone, sending someone a letter has been lost."

LaBute is pleased with "Possession," but he resists the idea that he's on a carefully planned path from controversial indies to safe studio pictures.

"I've already finished my next film," he says, referring to "The Shape of Things," based on a play he directed in London and New York. "It's as small and quirky as anything I've done. The play I'm doing in New York this fall is also small and dark.

"I'm not much of a career planner, so I can't tell you, 'This is what I'm going to do.' But as a writer, I'm very drawn to that smaller, darker stuff. So as a director, that's what I'll be offering myself along the way."

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