Jul 19, 2005

Possession (2002)

I absolutely adore 'Possession' - the book. So I decided I'd have to be indulgent with the movie. After all no one can bring to screen the stunning, evocative descriptions, the strong, deep characters - in short the magic of words that A.S.Byatt weaves. So I made up my mind to be nice, to judge the movie within what it tries to achieve and not ask sundry questions like why they chose to write out Leanora Stern or why Blackadder became Irish, whether I like it or not.

As the camera greedily captured the beauty of Yorkshire, Seal court , British museum even the London bus, I could immediately realize that the cinematography and location choices are going to be brilliant. The long banners waving gently claiming the centenary celebration of Randolph Henry Ash's love poems, the statues patiently watching in the British museum,the seashore sequences of yorkshire, with the crashing waves setting the scenes for the passion does immediate justice to Byatt. She takes her time to describe the place, she uses all the devices she could, she tells us the colors, the smell, the moods the scene presents. The salt water shower as Maud and Roland cross the channel, the umbrellas clanging when Chritabel and Randolph meet.. to name two of the many many sequences. And the movie does justice. As the camera moves seamlessly between the two periods back and forth, we can see the care that has been taken to set the mood, evoke the feeling. A movie, being a visual media can obviously do it easily and this one does so.

However the book is unmistakably a book of words. On two poets. Quoting poetry, without being tedious, is a must have. And Roland and Maud dutifully quote some poetry during the initial sequences and we have Randolph himself quoting. But what about in yorkshire? That is supposedly his most fertile period and there is hardly a word of poetry. Thats the period when they influence each other. And yet neither pair quote, except for a brief reading by Roland on the bed.

The screenplay got the victorian romance better than the modern. The characterization is more true to the book. They got his scientific inclination, her love for Blanche, his passion for her, her anger towards him and so on. Ehle has the tough job of playing a character torn between two loves. Wonderfully supported by Blanche who does a great job in the limited time with limited lines.

Now we come to my biggest gripes. The modern lovers. I don't have a problem with Roland being American. In fact it was potentially a brilliant choice. It could effectively show how he has to deal with the burden of being an outsider, often thought to be inferior, the prejudices he had to endure in not being one of them etc. But the Roland in the screen came off as too brash, too lucky. Roland in the book despite his own complex of inferiority is worthy of earning three independent professors' praise. He tracks down a book that no one has yet touched since Randolph's death, he researches Chritabel before he meets Maud. I felt it was unnecessary to have him come across as an impulsive guy who just jumps to conclusion based on flimsy evidences. Maud in the movie even asks him, "Did you not do any research?"

Then there is Maud. Her characterization was the biggest let down. I like Gwyneth Paltrow quite a bit but I think she didnt do justice to the character. Initially I thought it was the screenplay, but when I look at it, its more to do with the delivery than the lines themselves. Her cute smile makes it all a gentle tease and not at all cold and condescending. Her introduction makes her sound more coquettish than feminist. Since the build-up wasn't there, the thawing came too soon and was ineffective.

The modern lovers getting physical in yorkshire somehow made their characters shallow. In this world, with its excessive exposure to sex, the book portrays them to fall in love in the end. I think it is not just a simplistic romantic device and is a commentary on modern day sensibilities against the victorian lovers' passion. The whole 'I wanted to see if there was an us' was too lame, too soon, too superficial.

The movie would probably work best in attracting some readers to the book. It gives enough to make you want to read the book.

Would I recommend the movie? I think I would to someone who likes the genre of romance. For the rest who are looking for serious literary criticism, poetry and sleuthing, read the book.

July 19, 2005