A fictional story of literary scholars American Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) and British Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), who independently find that the socially antagonistic relationship between the Victorian era poets Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle) may have concealed a secret connection as lovers. Ash is traditional and conservative and LaMotte is a freethinking bisexual. Rival scholars become aware of their efforts and each seeks to be the first at the public disclosure of this major finding about the poets. In a parallel relationship, Michell and Bailey have their own deepening connection.Aaron Eckhart as Roland MichellGwyneth Paltrow as Maud BaileyJeremy Northam as Randolph Henry AshJennifer Ehle as Christabel LaMotteLena Headey as Blanche GloverHolly Aird as Ellen AshToby Stephens as Fergus WolfeTom Hollander as Euan
Three early drafts of the film's screenplay were written by American playwright David Henry Hwang in the 1990s, but the project languished in pre-production for years. Directors such as Sydney Pollack and Gillian Armstrong worked on the film and eventually gave up before LaBute became director. LaBute made drastic changes to the story, based partially on notes that original author Byatt had made on earlier drafts of the screenplay, as she recognized that Roland Michell had to "exist on screen" in a different way than he did in the book.
"What she basically said was, 'This is Roland on the page; you must make him different in a film!' She got that Roland needed more drive. Just seeing those notes kind of gave me the keys to the kingdom. And so in the film, Roland keeps making these wild, imaginative leaps about the poets' lives, and Maud's both charmed and appalled."
LaBute changed Roland's nationality from British to American, and made him more brash and active. He denied that this was "shameless pandering to the audience....in part, it was [just] more comfortable for me to write Roland that way."
Ralph Fiennes was approached for the role as Randolph Ash that eventually went to Jeremy Northam.
Daniel Zalewski of The New York Times noted that director LaBute, "known for savagely blunt stage and screen dramas ... has here infused a British novelist's main characters with the same stutter-and-slang rhythms, male-bonding repartée and sarcastic volleys that define his own distinctly American work." He said, "In the end, Mr. LaBute's grafting of his own sensibility onto Roland creates a weird tonal clash."
Jamie Russell of the BBC said, "Lacking the intelligence of an arthouse picture, or the classy sheen of a British production, "Possession" isn't possessed of anything other than over-wrought emotionalism and unintentional silliness."
Rob Gonsalves said, "Possession is a dual-track exploration of romantic mores then and now... A film like this rides on the quality of the acting, and the Brits – Northam and Ehle – invest their forbidden love with centuries of fine repressed English tradition."
Audiences rated it higher than some reviewers. The film grossed $14,815,898 worldwide.
The film has been released on DVD with subtitles and captions.