Possession (2002) won the most recent reader poll, so let’s get to it!
The film is based on A.S. Byatt’s 1990 Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, a “brainy romance” which contrasts modern and Victorian times and uses a flashback structure to move between a current investigation and a long-ago affair. Two literary scholars, Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow, an American playing British) and Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart, an American playing a character who was British in the book but got turned into an American in the film) track down the heretofore unknown correspondence and relationship between two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). Director Neil LaBute also helped adapt the screenplay.
How does the title come into play? As per the book’s Wikipedia entry:
The title Possession highlights many of the major themes in the novel: questions of ownership and independence between lovers; the practice of collecting historically significant cultural artefacts; and the possession that biographers feel toward their subjects.
Maud and Roland explore their own budding relationship as they research Ash and LaMotte’s relationship — but it’s really the latter that holds the viewer’s interest. The chemistry, such as it is, between Paltrow and Eckhart really cannot hold a candle to the scorching sparks between Ehle and Northam, as also evidenced in the film trailer below:
I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.
The reel librarian
How does the reel librarian fit into all this literary foreplay and mating rituals? I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if there is a librarian character in the source material. But in the movie adaptation, we actually get our first glance at the reel librarian less than 3 minutes (!) into the film, in a library scene critical to the entire plot.
*POSSIBLE SPOILERS THROUGHOUT*
Roland Michell is a research assistant and scholar of the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, and he catches a London double-decker bus to the London Library to pick up a book for a professor. The reel librarian (played by Hugh Simon) plonks down an old book from Ash’s personal library.
(I love this screenshot of the old book, carefully tied with ribbon, juxtaposed next to a computer keyboard and mouse!)
Although we first see the hands of the reel librarian before we see his face, the camera is not kind to the facial expressions of the reel librarian:
Let’s see how the researcher and the reel librarian “meet cute,” shall we? 😉
Librarian: Bit of an old monster.
Roland: Yeah, but an important monster. It’s Randolph Ash’s.
Librarian: Yes. Who are you with again?
Roland: I’m Roland Michell.
Roland: Professor Blackadder’s research assistant.
Librarian: Isn’t that Dr. Wolfe?
Roland: Was. Fergus got the lectureship position at St. John’s… over me.
Librarian: Of course he did. Oh yes, Dr. Wolfe mentioned you. You’re that American who’s over here.
Roland: Well, I’m sure there are others. I mean, after all, you are our favorite colony.
The librarian has no comeback for that. Score a point for the American! The librarian drops what he’s holding, sighs, then picks up a book to read it.
We learn several things from this short, but contentious exchange, between Roland and the librarian, who is definitely serving as an Information Provider. We learn that the librarian is old-fashioned and conservative, dressed in his sweater vest, tie, and tweeds. The librarian also manages to be both oblivious AND nosy at the same time. The librarian’s nosiness is convenient for purposes of exposition, as we get to learn not only a brief backstory (and credentials) of Roland’s character, but we also learn about his rivalry with another researcher, Dr. Wolfe. Also, this “Britains vs. Americans” theme — unique to the film, as Roland’s character was British in the book — will come up again throughout the film. The librarian is also dismissive of Ash’s book, which helps provide plausibility to Roland’s impending discovery.
The London Library and the letter
This first scene in the library lasts less than a minute, but we return to the London Library a minute later, with this bird’s-eye view:
We then zoom into Roland’s table, surrounded by books and index cards, as he starts going through Ash’s book, a setting nicely juxtaposed with a brief flashback of Ash inserting the letter into the book 150-odd years ago:
Roland immediately understands the significance of what he is reading. Randolph Henry Ash is known for his love poems, but here he is writing a letter to a woman, a poet, who is NOT HIS WIFE. Roland looks up and around, suddenly acutely aware of other researchers… and the reel librarian’s suspicious gaze.
The music swells as we see Roland mentally wrestle with what to do. Should he put the letter back into the book and inform the London Library of his discovery? But based on what we’ve already heard — he’s gotten passed over for a position, he’s an American who isn’t respected over here in England, nobody attaches any importance to Ash’s old book — we anticipate what he’s about to do instead.
Yep, Roland Michell chooses to pilfer the letter. (That’s fancy talk for “stealing.”) And see how nonchalantly he pulls it off, in the following pair of screenshots.
Step 1: Move the letter over to his personal notebook, which is behind the column, out of sight from the librarian.
Step 2: Sliiiiiiiide over to the other seat behind the column and close the notebook. Done! Now you see him, now you don’t…
Selling the plot
This pivotal scene ends at 6 minutes and 50 seconds. The combined library scenes last a combined 3 minutes, setting up the premise for the rest of the film.
Roland takes the letter to his flat and reads it, and then visits his landlord, Euan, who also happens to be a lawyer (played by the always hilarious Tom Hollander). Roland buys “7 minutes of attorney-client privilege” to confess what he’s done, and therefore has the opportunity to really sell the plot to the viewer:
Roland: They’re practically love letters.
Euan: Rather racy, actually.
Roland: You see, Ash, supposedly, never even looked at another woman. I mean, not even glanced at one his entire marriage. Can you imagine what would happen if I could prove that Mr. Perfect Husband had this Shakespearean-type dark lady thing going on?
Euan: Yeah, but that would be extraordinary. It would be rewriting history, old chap.
PLOT. SET. MATCH. GO!
Research and the British Museum
I believe the library scenes, set in the London Library, were actually filmed on location, as evidenced by photos of the library seen on their website. However, the London Library is not included on the filming locations list on the IMDb.com page for Possession. The London Library is described as “one of the world’s largest independent lending libraries, and one of the UK’s leading literary institutions.” Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle helped initiate the founding of the London Library, formed in 1841, in reaction to the restrictive policies of the British Museum Library.
Knowing this rivalry between the London Library and the British Museum Library makes it even funnier when we realize that Roland works as a research assistant at the British Museum! We next see him entering the museum by the staff entrance, and then we are treated to a behind-the-scenes look at an office and private research library for Professor Blackadder:
Roland does attempt to tell Blackadder of his discovery, but Blackadder cuts him off with, “No need, the novice blunders on the discovery. The scholar investigates.”
As Blackadder rushes off, he instructs Roland to answer the “wretched requests” that came in from the public, including — and I am not kidding here — a question about how many jars of gooseberry jam Ash’s wife made in 1850.
Roland responds, “This is not a job for a grown-up!”
But this job IS important, as Roland gets inspired for how to do more research for his own discovery in the midst of researching Ash’s wife’s diaries and personal correspondence. He begins getting clues (keywords!) from Ash’s letter and looking up his wife’s diaries to uncover the next step in the research trail.
Bonus: The viewer gets treated to the old-school index files for this private research collection, as well as all the file boxes. Nothing looks computerized!
The research trail then leads him to Dr. Maud Bailey (Paltrow), who works at the University of Lincoln in Lincolnshire and is an expert scholar on Christabel LaMotte. We also find out that Maud is related to LaMotte. Maud is immediately dismissive of Roland’s theories (“It does seem rather pointless“) but humors him by allowing him to look over letters of LaMotte’s lover, Blanche Glover (played by Lena Headey), from that time period.
We also get to see Maud’s office, which is light and airy and filled with neatly stacked books and illustrations tacked up over the desk.
Roland then stays overnight at Maud’s place, and at 21 minutes into the film, decides to take a chance at revealing his secret to Maud (to impress her?):
Roland: Maud, can I show you something? [digs into his bag and hands her the letters]
Maud: Are these…
Roland: Those are the originals.
Maud: How did you get them?
Roland: I took them.
Maud: Took them?
Roland: I sort of stole them.
Maud: Where from?
Roland: The London Library.
Maud: How could you do that?
Roland: It was on impulse.
Here is Maud’s priceless reaction to the letters — and to Roland’s cavalier attitude to stealing:
This scene, which ends at 22 minutes, then completes the plot set-up, that Maud and Roland will team up to research the relationship between Ash and LaMotte, a journey that takes them several different places, including all over England and over to France.
Ethics? What ethics?!
Along the way, Roland’s unorthodox — er, unethical — practices totally corrupt Maud’s own standards as a scholar, all the way up to the end of the film. I won’t spoil all their adventures, but here’s just a smattering of quotes throughout the rest of the film that involve research, research methods, and increasingly deteriorating standards of professional behavior:
Maud, upon discovering a cache of letters between LaMotte and Ash:
Can we please do it properly. Let me run downstairs and get with some notecards and some pencils?
Maud’s reaction to the necessities of researching Ash’s wife’s diaries, an interesting way to rephrase that old saying, “The devil is in the details”:
God is in the boring housewife’s stuff. We should check it.
Maud’s reaction to Roland wanting to keep tracking down LaMotte and Ash’s movements, instead of going back to work at the British Museum:
I thought you were mad when you came to Lincoln with your stolen letter. Now I feel exactly the same.
Roland’s reaction to having to go back to work, while Maud leaves to doublecheck her archives:
Good. I guess I’ll just… I don’t know… go look up shit on the microfiche.
Spoiler: He totally doesn’t. We see him hanging out amongst the bookshelves instead, while his co-worker pushes a cart down the aisle, working.
Totally corrupted by this point, Maud’s smiley reaction to Roland taking the fax a rival researcher sent:
Perhaps “shameless” would have been a better title for the film? 😉
Possession. Dir. Neil LaBute. Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle. Warner Bros., 2002.
“Possession (2002).” IMDB.com.