A reel archivist returns in ‘National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets’

Last week, I dived deep into the archivist’s role in 2004’s National Treasure… so it should come as no surprise that this week, it feels fitting to explore the 2007 sequel, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.

Here’s a snippet of the sequel’s plot, from the back of the DVD:

This film “[t]akes you on a globe-trotting quest full of adrenaline-pumping twists and turns — all leading to the final club in a mysterious and highly guarded book containing centuries of secrets. But there’s only one way to find it — Ben Gates must kidnap the President.”

So… in the first film, Ben Gates steals the Declaration of Independence; in the sequel, he “upgrades” to kidnapping the President. Okaaaaaaaaaaay.

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS THROUGHOUT*

Here’s a trailer for National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets:

NATIONAL TREASURE 2: BOOK OF SECRETS (2007) – Official Movie Trailer,” uploaded by soundfan, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License

What do I like about the film?

That the word “book” is in the movie’s subtitle, that Helen Mirren co-stars in the sequel (she plays an expert on ancient Native American languages), and that the Library of Congress also gets a co-starring role! 😉

What do I NOT like about the film?

Uh, everything else. The talented cast is wasted in this paint-by-numbers, pedestrian action film. And it’s not just me! The film “earned” two Razzie Award nominations:  Worst Actor for Nicolas Cage and Worst Supporting Actor for Jon Voight.

Bookstore scene:

Eight minutes into the film, we get a wide shot of a scene that’s clearly set in a bookstore (not a library!). The sidekick, Riley (Justin Bartha), has written a book, and it’s clear he’s trying to cash in on the fame. (But the book he’s written will be an important plot point later.)

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

You’re no Indiana Jones, dude.

However, no one’s really interested in the sidekick.

Trouble in (archives) paradise:

We also learn early one that Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) and Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger, downgraded from 2nd billing in the first film to 3rd billing in the sequel, boo!) have broken up. But Gates needs to break into her house because of PLOT reasons that have something to do with John Wilkes Booth, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the reputation of the Gates family.

As Gates puts it, “I need to get Abigail’s ID. She has access to the Booth diary page.”

Long story short, they do break in, and Gates pulls open Abigail’s desk drawer to grab her ID badge… which now reads “Library of Congress.”

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Abigail Chase’s Library of Congress ID

There’s no explanation given, but it’s clear that Chase has moved from the National Archives to the Library of Congress within the previous three years. My thoughts for the reason why? Because of PLOT. 😉

And OF COURSE Chase comes home early — she’s been on a date! — and we get to see her all gussied up in a fancy dress and heels. She’s been on a date with the “White House curator” (another reel archivist?), and here’s his reaction to her home:

ConnorWow. You work in a museum, and you live in one.

ChasePretty much.

Caught red-handed breaking into her house, Gates tries to smooth-talk his way out of the situation, but Chase sees right through him. The resulting conversation echoes their first conversation together from the first film.

ChaseHand it over, Ben.

GatesI need to see the Booth diary page.

ChaseYou saw the page yourself. There is no treasure map on it.

GatesNo, it’s a cipher leading to a map. Anyone spectral-image the page?

ChaseNo need to. The ink writing on the page is clearly visible.

GatesIt could have been erased or faded. You’re the director of document conservation. You know all this.

ChaseIt’s not up to me. It’s not my department.

Gates: That department reports to your department. Come on. One look under infrared.

I do enjoy this bit of conversation, even if only to get a clue about her new job and title!

The white glove returns!

The next scene takes place in what I assume is a lab in the Library of Congress, where Chase is using a computer and infrared scan. The iconic white gloves, an essential tool in the archivist’s toolbox, do make an appearance, but it’s interesting to note that Chase only has a white glove on her left hand, and not her right hand while she’s using the computer.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Modern archival equipment!

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

White gloves in hand for the reel archivist

This short scene is also notable for its use of modern archivist technology this time — no lemon juice or hairdryers this time! 😉

They do find a cipher on the back of the page — DA DA DUMMMMMMM! —  and she sends the document to the scanner.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Cipher discovered!

Chase takes off the glove on her left hand and pull outs a copy of the document from the scanner. You can see her white gloves in the background of the closeup.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

A reel archivist’s tools: white gloves, tape, and infrared scanners

Here’s how this scene and its importance to Chase’s identity as a reel archivist is described in the “Crossing a Librarian with a Historian: The Image of Reel Archivists” article by Aldred, Burr, and Park:

“In the sequel National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (2007), we once again encounter Abigail Chase; she performs one “archival” function: she uses a computer to manipulate a digital image of a page torn from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, all the while either wearing or holding a white glove. This humorous image aside, we learn that she is now working for the Library of Congress and is Director of Document Conservation.” (p. 85)

The book of secrets:

The “book of secrets” is solved midway through the film. Remember Riley’s treasure-hunting book that nobody wanted to read? Turns out, he wrote a chapter about “The President’s Secret Book” and a secret seal. (The trio had discovered this seal on an adventure in London, for reasons of PLOT.)

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

The chapter on the secret book in Riley’s book

It was definitely a moment for “suspension of disbelief” and massive eye-rolling, because the “President’s Secret Book” and secret seal feels like something both Chase and Gates would already know about, right? But at least Riley gets his moment in the spotlight.

Library of Congress connection:

So all of this secret book nonsense leads Gates to, naturally, have to kidnap POTUS in order to confront him about the book and how to find it. As you do. This leads them to the Library of Congress.

PresidentThe book exists.

GatesWhere is it?

PresidentWhere else do you keep a book? In the Library of Congress.

POTUS then gives Gates a code:  XY 234786.

I immediately shouted out at the screen, “It’s a call number!!!!” And of course, it had to be a Library of Congress call number, which start with a combination of letters, followed by numbers. (Dewey Decimal call numbers start with numbers, 000s through 900s.)

And now we know why Dr. Abigail Chase had to switch jobs from the National Archives to the Library of Congress. I had mused it was for reasons of PLOT. And here’s where that plot point pays off…

Library of Congress archivist leading the way:

At 1 hour and 11 mins into the film, Chase leads the way to the Library of Congress. Doesn’t she look totally bad-ass in her black leather jacket? #ArchivistRoleModel

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Library of Congress entry

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Reel archivist in charge and coming through!

RileyWhere do we start?

ChaseXY is the book classification code. Stands for special collections, which means very special books.

Of course the reel librarian/archivist would figure out straight away that it’s a call number!

Note:  The Library of Congress classification system generally follows the alphabet for the first part of its call number combinations, as you can see here, meaning there are potentially 26 major categories of call numbers. However, 5 of the 26 English language letters are not currently used for call number categories, being kept in “reserve” for future use. “X” is one of those letters not currently used for Library of Congress call numbers. (I, O, W, and Y are the other letters not in use.) So it could be possible, theoretically, that the Library of Congress could use the “X” category for secret collections not known to the public.

I loved how, in this screenshot below, you can spot two librarians on duty in the iconic round reference desk in the middle of the Library of Congress Reading Room. This film has both reel archivists AND reel librarians! 😀

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Two reel librarians on duty at the Library of Congress Reading Room reference desk

We also get a shot of another reel librarian, or rather library assistant, opening up a back door and rolling out a library cart.

None of the reel librarians in this scene, however, recognize Chase.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Reel librarian alert, with an iconic prop, the book cart.

Chase leads to the way to the alcove, which is labeled “Deck 7, Q-Z.”

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Library alcove set in the Library of Congress

But the book is not on the shelf, where the call number indicates it would be.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Call number closeup

RileyMaybe someone checked it out.

ChaseWhy would he send us here if there’s no book?

RileyHe probably wanted us to get caught.

Library ladder alert! I will need to add this film to the library ladders round-up post:

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Library ladder alert!

Gates figures out the secret book’s secret hiding place, by use of additional clues POTUS gave him.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

The book of secrets discovered!

Trivia from IMDb.com reveals that:

The area of the Library of Congress, in which Gates finds the Book of Secrets, does not exist as an area of book shelves. These book shelves were constructed as a prop library in a previously empty balcony of the Library’s Main Reading Room, and dismantled after the scenes were shot.

And the director confirms this on the commentary track:

We also had to build this room, in the Library of Congress, true to the style of the Library of Congress. The last thing you want to do is destroy the Library of Congress. If a light falls off her, we’re gonna break a library. So the goal here was just to get this room to look like the Library of Congress.

Although the trio are being hunted down by FBI agents — because of that whole “kidnapping the President” thing — there is still time for humor.

Random FBI AgentSo Gates abducts the president, lets him go, and then heads to the Library of Congress? Why?

FBI Agent SaduskyMaybe he wants to check out a book.

Escape from the Library of Congress:

The trio then try to elude the FBI agents on their tail. Chase leads Riley to the reference desk, where they escape down the secret stairs that lead to the basement of the Library of Congress. And OF COURSE the librarians on duty don’t notice this. Suspension of disbelief, y’all.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Escape through the Reading Room reference desk

The two run past a circular piece of machinery, which you can see in the screenshot below, which the director revealed on the commentary track that he was fascinated by and had to include in the final film:

These are extraordinary places underneath the Library [of Congess]. Go in that door, you down stairs, there’s a whole transport system of books. I mean, look at that. That’s how books get sent around the library on these little elevators that go up and down. All right, I don’t know what that has to do with the library, but we’re shooting it.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Running through the Library of Congress basement

I also loved how when the FBI agents came down the central staircase, a librarian immediately points the way to help them catch the adventurers.

Screenshot from 'National Treasure 2' (2007)

Librarian helper

Don’t mess with librarians! 😉

Reel archivist and librarian roles:

Once again, Diane Kruger’s portrayal of reel archivist Dr. Abigail Chase in this Class I film lands in the Atypical Portrayal category. She is a major character, and we see her both in and out of library and archival space, interacting with modern archival equipment. She is smart, funny, and not afraid to show her flexibility and resourcefulness when needed. She is a reel archivist role model!

The other reel archivist, the White House curator Connor (played by Ty Burrell), serves as both an Information Provider and Comic Relief. And the four other reel librarian cameos glimpsed in the Library of Congress scene all serve as Information Providers.

My personal connection to this movie:

Fun fact! During an American Library Association national conference in Washington D.C. a few years ago and a special tour the Library of Congress provided for librarians only, I actually got to go down those exact stairs and explore the basement of the Library of Congress! It’s amaaaaaaaaaaaaazing! The Library of Congress collection is actually spread out over several buildings, and they are all interconnected by the system of pulleys and conveyer belts you see in the film.

The tour guide was also a librarian who had been at the Library of Congress one of the days they filmed this scene for the film. Cool, huh? 😀

Comments?

Have you seen National Treasure or its sequel, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets? Did you enjoy them and/or the major archivist role in these films? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

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Reel archivist in ‘Blade Runner 2049’

My husband, Sam, alerted me to an extended archives scene in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, a scene that helps set in motion the background and plot for the film. And it felt like perfect timing, as I recently deep-dived into real-life archivists critically examining portrayals of reel archivists.

Let’s dive into this film now!

Blade Runner 2049 is not a remake of the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner; rather, it is a continuation, with Harrison Ford reprising his role as Deckard. Ryan Gosling stars as K, a police officer assigned to track down a rogue replicant. He begins by going to the Wallace Corporation’s Earth Headquarter archives.

Here’s a teaser trailer for the film:

Blade Runner 2049 Official Teaser Trailer #1 (2017) Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford Sci-Fi Movie HD” by Zero Media is licensed under a Standard YouTube License

Meet the archivist:

The archives scene begins 30 mins into the film. K stands at a long, wrap-around counter, behind which sits the archivist, played by Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis. It’s interesting to note that although this character is titled “File Clerk” in the credits, the subtitles refer to him as “Archivist.” I will refer to this character as the archivist throughout the remainder of this post.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

The reference counter for the Wallace Corporation archives

Here’s their opening exchange, or rather, their initial reference interview:

KJust checking in on an old serial number.

ArchivistConfirmation DNA?

KI got hair. [hands him an evidence baggie]

The archivist then drops the hair into a scanner, which immediately brings up information on a central screen. I found it interesting that the archivist did NOT wear gloves to handle the evidence. (And put a pin in that, as we will revisit that point later.)

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

The archivist scans the evidence

The archivist reacts swiftly and strongly to the information on the screen. I *loved* the archivist’s facial expressions during this scene.

ArchivistOh! An old one. Pre-blackout. Huh. That’s gonna be tough. Not much from then. And what’s there is [clicks tongue] thick milky.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Uh-oh! says the archivist…

Luv, a replicant who is assistant to Mr. Wallace — remember, they’re at the Wallace Corporation’s Earth Headquarters — then gets an auto alert about the serial number and DNA scan. She asks to reschedule the client meeting she had been conducting.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Auto alert!

We then cut back to the archivist, who is leading K down rows and rows of what look very similar to old-fashioned card catalog drawers. The cinematography is quite striking in the film in general, but particularly so in these scenes. The atmosphere feels almost holy and reverential, with the rows of card catalogs akin to pews in a church. But instead of feeling warmth or comfort from the reverence, we instead get a feeling of severity and sterility… perhaps because all the pre-Blackout data has been wiped? All of these records are blank, useless, broken. Yet they remain a monument to what was.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Rows and rows of archives

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Walking down the rows of archives

While they walk, the archivist chatters to K.

ArchivistEveryone remembers where they were at the Blackout. You?

KThat was a little before my time.

Archivist: Mmmmm… I was home with my folks, then ten days of darkness. Every machine stopped cold. When the lights came back, we were wiped clean. Photos, files, every bit of data… Fttt! Gone. Bank records, too. [Chuckles] Didn’t mind that. It’s funny it’s only paper that lasted. I mean, we had everything on drives. Everything, everything. Huh. My mom still cries over the lost baby pictures.

KWell, it’s a shame. You must have been adorable. [deadpan sarcasm]

The archivist then opens a drawer and rifles through what looks like plexiglass microfiche, even holding one up to the light.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Data records in a card catalog drawer

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Reading the remains of a data record

Archivist: Pretty fractured. Not much on it. One of the last gens, pre-Prohibition. Standard issue. Made by Tyrell.

KAnd?

ArchivistUnremarkable.

KUnremarkable?

Their exchange is then cut short, as Luv appears behind them at the end of the row. The archivist immediately shuts down, and in silence, bows to Luv, walks over, hands her the file, and then walks away. There is no question who holds the power in this scenario.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Luv, K, and the archivist

Luv then closes the drawer, introduces herself, and offers more help to K:

LuvAnother prodigal serial number returns. A 30-year-old open case finally closed. Thank you, officer. I’m here for Mr. Wallace. I’m Luv… Follow me. The ancient models give the entire endeavor a bad name. What a gift, don’t you think, from Mr. Wallace to the world? The outer colonies would never have flourished had he not bought Tyrell, revivified the technology. To say the least of what we do.

During this exchange, they walk through another collection of Mr. Wallace’s, a collection of rogue replicants encased in glass. This is the second peek into the Wallace Corporation’s archives, which are eclectic indeed. And not a little creepy.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

The collection of rogue replicants in Wallace’s archives

Luv and K then continue down a shadowy corridor, the off-site storage for archives. No longer in the main cathedral of the archives, it’s like they are now walking along the cloisters.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Heading toward the “junk” rooms

LuvHere. All the junk is in here. Lucky for you, Mr. Wallace is a data hoarder. [the door sticks.] No one’s been down here in ages. [shoves open the door] Sorry about that.

The lights automatically come on as they step in the room.

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

As they step into the “junk” room, Luv slips on a white glove

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

The white glove!

As Luv walks over to a specific drawer, she slips on a white glove to handle a “memory ball.” So the iconic white glove of the archivist DOES appear in the film — just not on the archivist! 😉

LuvAll our memory bearings from the time. They were all damaged in the Blackout. But there are sometimes fragments.

As the memory ball is read by a scanner, a computer screen reads: “Tyrell Archives: Video document.” I appreciated that this screen did confirm that we were, indeed, in the archives. 🙂

Screenshot from 'Blade Runner 2049' (2017)

Tyrell Archives screen

The video flashes fragments of an interview between Rachael and Deckard, an interview from the original film. This then sets up the eventual connection between Deckard and K.

The archives scene lasts about seven minutes in total, but sets the rest of the film’s plot in motion. It also emphasizes how vital archives are in society — and how the loss of archives adversely affects a society — as well as how important access is to archives.

The Blackout

The archivist and Luv both highlight the “Blackout,” when all electronic records were wiped out. This reminded me of this specific exchange in the 1975 classic Rollerball:

LibrarianThis is embarrassing. It’s embarrassing to misplace things.

Jonathan:  Misplaced some data?

Librarian:  Hmmm, the whole of the 13th century.

It’s clear that more than just the 13th century was wiped out in the Blade Runner universe, but there is a hint that some paper archives still exist, as when the archivist mused, “It’s funny it’s only paper that lasted.

This is a major theme in the movie, that data is the soul of memory. And with no data or records, what happens to memory? What happens to our souls?

And I’m not the only one who thought along these lines. I came across this tweet from Dan Cohen, Dean of Libraries at Northeastern University:

The last word?

Finally, I want to revisit the character of the archivist. While revealing vital background information about the world they live in now, the archivist reveals his personality. The archivist, although he looks quite severe with his leather shirt and bald head, comes across as animated, chatty, a little nerdy, even humorous. He definitely has no problem attempting to have a conversation with K, and it is not until Luv shows up that the archivist shuts down emotionally, like he has been “put in his place.”

Before Luv shows up, the archivist smiles quite a bit and infuses his lines with real feeling, as well as making amusing sound effects (like clicking his tongue), and making hand gestures. His vivid personality is notable in a film of blank demeanors and flat line reads from the replicant characters. My hat is off to the actor, Tómas Lemarquis, who makes quite an impression for just a couple of minutes of screen time.

Ultimately, the reel archivist in this film winds up in the Information Provider category. And the personality that shines through this reel archivist’s portrayal lands the film in the Class III category, film in which the librarian(s) plays a secondary role, ranging from a supporting character to a minor character with perhaps only a few lines in one memorable or significant scene.

Your thoughts?

Have you seen Blade Runner, the original or the recent sequel? What are your thoughts about this reel archivist character? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

First impressions: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Last week, I did a deep dive into analyzing Wong’s reel librarian role in 2016’s Doctor Strange, in the lead-up to this past weekend’s (record-crashing) premiere of Avengers: Infinity War.

Below is Benedict Wong’s charming interview — and his Manchester accent! — on the premiere’s red carpet event.

First impressions overall

First, my impressions about Avengers: Infinity War in general. Note about spoilers:  I will try hard not to spoil the big reveals or the ending, but be forewarned that I might (indirectly) allude to outcomes or clues.

Overall, I really enjoyed the movie. The action and pacing kept the story going, and it was truly impressive how the directors, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, wove in character arcs throughout the multiple locales and action sequences. As one Vox reviewer highlighted, this movie mirrored onscreen how superhero comics do big crossover series in print. That the Marvel Universe managed to pull together all the myriad characters and story threads together — and did it well — is a Herculean feat, in and of itself.

I was also impressed with how expressive the CGI was for Thanos. I knew the Purple One was CGI, and yet I could not help but be moved by the genuine emotion captured in Thanos’s face — or rather, how they managed to capture actor Josh Brolin’s acting and emoting underneath all the CGI.

The ending… I will not spoil it, but I was impressed by how the ending raised the stakes. It connected back to the original comics series while also standing on its own. I also have to admit that one of my first thoughts after the movie ended was, “Now how are they going to get out of this one??!

First impressions of Wong’s character in this movie

I mentioned last week that the director of Doctor Strange had hinted that Wong had an important role in Avengers: Infinity War. And Wong had scored his own character poster, which featured him conjuring magical shields with his hands.

Wong plays a part in one of the major battle scenes near the beginning of the movie. Thanos has dispatched his Black Watch baddies, using a “divide and conquer” strategy, with Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian heading toward New York to retrieve the Time Stone from Doctor Strange (the stone is in the Eye of Agomotto).

Bruce Banner also comes hurtling through time and space and (literally) crashes into the New York sanctum. He then warns them of Thanos.

Wong remains Strange's "right-hand man"

Wong remains Strange’s “right-hand man”

Tony Stark — who was conveniently in Central Park with Pepper — quickly joins Banner, Strange, and Wong. Wong then goes into teacher/librarian mode and explains the stakes to Stark and Banner, through an illusion casting of the Infinity Stones. Wong is efficient and straightforward in this exposition, identifying and naming each Infinity Stone. This scene essentially functions as an abbreviated form of Wong’s Infinity Stone lesson to Strange in Doctor Strange; in that film, Wong did the illusion casting in the Kamar-Taj monastery, home to the monastery library. But in this film, it makes sense that Wong conjures the Infinity Stones in the entrance of the New York sanctum. We never get to see Wong the sorcerer librarian in his monastery library, but it is nice to see him using his librarian skills to help set up the stakes — and the plot of the entire movie — to members of the Avengers, as well as to the audience.

Side note:  There is an Avengers: Infinity War prelude comic that reveals that Wong knows a LOT about the Infinity Stones, more than anyone else does. This suggests he has done some serious research in tracking down the history and provenance of each Infinity Stone, befitting his role as the Kamar-Taj Librarian. Henceforth, Wong will be known as the Supreme Researcher.

Back to the action… once again, Wong is just in time with his lesson, because the foursome then immediately square off against Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian. Banner has trouble turning into the Hulk — there’s a funny bit when Tony Stark says something like, “You’re embarrassing me in front of the wizards!” — so Wong takes up the charge of protecting Banner.

Stlll from 'Avengers: Infinity War' trailer

The Avengers face off the Black Watch in New York

Wong then ultimately defeats Cull Obsidian by transporting him to a snowy region/planet and then severs off the villain’s arm when closing the portal. It’s nice to see Wong victorious in battle in this movie, especially considering his previous battle at the end of Doctor Strange, which I went into detail in last week’s post. Stark is so impressed with Wong’s quick thinking and magical skillz that he shouts, “Wong, you’re invited to the wedding!” (We had learned earlier that Tony and Pepper are recently engaged.)

A quick note that amidst all the action, Wong does land a few jokes, including one about a favorite flavor of ice cream, delivered in his usual deadpan style.

Ebony Maw ultimately captures Strange, and Stark and Spider-Man — who has since joined the crew — pursue Maw’s ship. This leaves Bruce Banner to contact Captain America and Wong to defend the sanctum.

Ultimately, Wong serves the same role and fulfills the same character types as he did in Doctor Strange; he serves as both an Information Provider and Comic Relief.

Will we get to see Wong again?

Again, I will not (directly) spoil the end of the movie, but be warned that I may (indirectly and vaguely) allude to outcomes or clues.

If Wong returns in the second movie, then he might be key to restoring the world order. After all, he may turn out to be one of the only (if not the only?) Masters of the Mystic Arts left. However, Benedict Wong is not (currently) listed on the cast list for the Infinity War sequel, scheduled to be released next year. But that cast list is very short — only about three dozen names are listed as yet — so I will be on the lookout for any more news or clues of Wong.

Last but not least, I need to address the most important cliffhanger of the filmwill Wong get to attend Tony Stark’s wedding??? We shall see… 😉


Have you seen Avengers: Infinity War yet? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts — but no direct spoilers, please!

And if you want more backstory on Wong and his character in the Marvel movies, check out Wong’s character page on the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki site.


Sources used:

Adams, Tim. “Infinity War Prelude Comic Shows Wong Is More Important Than We Knew.” CBR.com, 28 Feb. 2018.

Avengers: Infinity War. Dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Perf. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong. Marvel Studios, 2018.

Avengers: Infinity War Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Trailers” uploaded by Movieclips Trailers is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Benedict Wong on ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Premiere Red Carpet | THR” by The Hollywood Reporter is licensed under a Standard YouTube license.

Untitled Avengers Movie (2019): Full Cast & Crew.” IMDb.com, 2018.

VanDerWerff, Todd. “Avengers: Infinity War is like a really short season of a TV show.” Vox, 1 May 2018.

Wong.” Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki, 2018.

Sorcerer librarians of ‘Doctor Strange’

Avengers: Infinity War opens this weekend, and if you’re a fan of the Marvel Universe series of films, then you’ll know that one of the (many, many) characters and heroes of the Marvel Universe is sorcerer librarian Wong, who was first introduced onscreen in 2016’s Doctor Strange.

Wong made the Avengers: Infinity War‘s promotional poster, in the upper right corner, and he scored his own character poster, as well. And there are a few glimpses of Wong in the first trailer (at 10 seconds, 46 seconds, and 1:02 minutes) that was released back in November 2017.

Before we rush to see the new film in the Marvel saga, let’s get to know the sorcerer librarians from Doctor Strange a bit better, yes?
*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

Library scene #1

The first library scene in Doctor Strange is also the first scene of the film, period. The librarian is shelving books in the Kamar-Taj monastery library. The villains, headed by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), break into the library and string up the librarian.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

The librarian is surrounded

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Librarian torture

They kill the librarian in order to gain access to the chained-up books in the restricted section, and Kaecilius then rips out a secret spell from one of the books, which we later learn is the Book of Cagliostro. Such is the power of knowledge, eh? Librarians, who in this context are literally the gatekeepers to forbidden knowledge, should get hazard pay for the very real dangers that come with the job.

When I first watched this film in theaters, I literally thought, “Wow. Is this the first time onscreen that a reel librarian’s murder has begun a film?!”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

The book of spells falls into the villain’s hands

This reel librarian, listed in the credits as the “Kamar-Taj Librarian,” is played by Ezra Khan, and he does get more backstory in one of the digital comics, Doctor Strange Prelude – The Zealot. This comic helped fill in some of the plot points and motivations for characters in the film, including prior interactions between the Kamar-Taj Librarian and Kaecilius.

Library scene #2

Our next library scene introduces us to the new monastery librarian, Wong (played by Benedict Wong, who also gets 4th billing in the credits list, and is credited above the title). Thirty-five minutes into the film, Strange begins his studies in earnest and brings a stack of books back to the library. Wong has a deadpan, inscrutable face — he takes the “librarian glare” to another dimension! — and he has no patience for Strange. #TeamWong

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian and Doctor Strange “meet cute”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong’s librarian glare

The library entrance is dark and full of shadows, with dim lighting — like the inner sanctum of the library itself — and this is where the librarian’s desk is, a wide and solid wood desk stacked with papers and books. The walls are lined with overstuffed bookcases. Wong wears burgundy robes, fitting his station as a Master of the Mystic Arts. His head is shaved, and he does not wear glasses.

Wong introduces himself with one word, his name. Doctor Strange tries to make a joke out of his one name (“Just Wong? Like Adele? Aristotle? Drake? Bono? Eminem?“), which becomes a running joke throughout the film.

Wong ignores him and reads the titles of the books Strange has brought back (Book of the Invisible Sun, Astronomia Nova, Codex Imperium, and Key of Solomon), and then invites Strange on a tour of the library.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian provides backstory and context for Doctor Strange

We get to see much more of the library — dimly lit with lamps, of course — which has rows of bookcases that slide in and out, full of books individually chained up. A very interesting shelving system!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian chooses books for Doctor Strange

We also get lots of exposition as Wong looks for and selects books for Wong to read next. This is one of the main roles that Wong fulfills, that of an Information Provider. And we get a LOT of information in the exchange below:

Wong: This section is for masters only but at my discretion, others may use it. You should start with Maxim’s primer. [He unchains a book.] How’s your Sanskrit?

Strange: I’m fluent in Google Translate.

Wong: Vedic, classical Sanskrit.

Strange: What are those? [points to the chained-up books]

Wong: The Ancient One’s private collection.

Strange: So they’re forbidden?

Wong: No knowledge in Kamar-Taj is forbidden. Only certain practices. Those books are far too advanced for anyone other than the Sorceror Supreme.

Strange: [unhooks a book] This one’s got pages missing. [This is the same book featured in the movie’s first scene, the book that Kaecilius ripped pages out of]

Wong: That’s the Book of Cagliostro. A study of time. One of the rituals was stolen by a former master. The zealot, Kaecilius. Just after he strung up the former librarian and relieved him of his head. I am now the guardian of these books. So if a volume from this collection should be stolen again I’d know it, and you’d be dead before you ever left the compound.

Wong then slams shut the book for emphasis. [This is a totally bad-ass move — and speech. I love how Wong makes it very clear that he cares deeply about his duty as the monastery librarian. Again, #TeamWong]

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong lays down the (library) law for Doctor Strange

Strange: What if it’s just overdue? Any late fees I should know about? Maiming perhaps?

Wong responds in silence and hands him a stack of books.

Strange: People used to think that I was funny.

Wong: Did that work for you?

Strange: All right. Well it’s been lovely talking to you. Thank you for the books… and for the horrifying story… and for the threat upon my life.

Wong nods, turns, and chains up the book again.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong secures one of the book in the library’s forbidden section

This scene lasts only three minutes, but wow, does it pack a punch! And Wong establishes his sorcerer and warrior bonafides with the bare minimum of dialogue and facial expressions. In his first scene, Wong has already established himself as one of the most interesting and dynamic reel librarian characters EVER.

Library scene #3

A few minutes later, at 43 minutes into the film, Strange returns to the library. Wong is sitting in his chair by the front table. He gets straight to the point.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Facial expression showdown!

Wong: What do you want, Strange?

Strange: Books on astral projection.

Wong: You’re not ready for that.

Strange: Try me Beyonce. Oh come on, you have heard of her right? She’s a huge star. Do you ever laugh? Oh come on just give me the book.

Wong: No.

Strange is not one to take “no” for an answer, so the next scene demonstrates how Strange bends the rules to get what he wants. It’s a seconds-long scene played for comedic effect. The central joke is that Wong, sitting at his desk while Strange steals books literally behind his back, is listening to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” song, which can be heard through his headphones. Of course he knows about Beyonce! This scene also hints at Wong’s (hidden) sense of humor. The joke is ultimately on Strange, as it’s clear that Wong misled him about his knowledge of Beyonce, in order to put a check on Strange’s big ego.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Library theft!

But Wong is also not one to take this deception lightly. In the next scene, the Ancient One scolds Strange for not following “the rules.”

Ancient One: Like the rule against conjuring a gateway in the library?

Strange: Wong told on me?

Ancient One: Trust your teacher, and don’t lose your way.

I like that last line, because it clearly designates the reel librarian as a teacher in his own right and someone to be respected. After all, he is a Master of the Mystic Arts, like the librarian before him. Yep, librarians are educators, too.

Library scene #4

Almost 50 minutes into the film, Strange heads back to the library, which now appears empty. Strange calls out to Wong; hearing no answer, he then heads straight to the restricted. Because OF COURSE. Strange grabs the Eye of Agomotto — which is itself an Infinity Stone and therefore very powerful — and figures out how to turn back time. He then uses the spell to resurrect the torn-out pages in the Book of Cagliostro. While I appreciate that he repaired the book — Strange could have a second career repairing books in libraries across the globe! — this was very reckless behavior.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Doctor Strange resurrects the missing pages from the book of spells

Wong and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) then burst in. Time to teach Strange a lesson.

Strange: I was just doing what was in the book.

Wong: What did the book say about the dangers of performing that ritual?

Strange: I don’t know. I hadn’t gotten to that part yet.

Mordo: Temporal manipulations can create branches in time. Unsuitable dimensional openings. Spatial paradoxes. Time loops! You wanna get stuck reliving the same moment over and over forever or never having existed at all?

Strange: Really should put the warnings before the spell.

It was at this moment that my husband, Sam, yelled aloud at the screen: “You did get the warning before, you just didn’t listen. It was the librarian!” Damn straight. ♥

Wong: Your curiosity could have gotten you killed. You weren’t manipulating the space time continuum, you were breaking it. We do not tamper with natural law. We defend it.

Again, Wong steps up and exposes the consequences of Strange’s rash actions. At the same time, he highlights how the Kamar-Taj librarians are not just defenders of the books in the library, they are also defenders of natural law.

Librarian as teacher

More exposition time! This scene continues with Wong leading a lesson about the scope of what the Masters defend and explains the roles of the Ancient One and the three sanctums of power, Hong Kong, New York, and London. Wong also explains about Dormammu, the evil force that Kaecilius has sold his soul to.

Wong is also the one who links Doctor Strange to the world of the Avengers, in one of the film’s most important lines:

“While heroes like the Avengers protect the world from physical dangers, we sorcerers safeguard it against more mystical threats.”

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

History lesson from the reel librarian

Wong’s lesson is not a minute too soon, because right after he finishes, they learn that the London sanctum has fallen, and that the New York sanctum is under attack. Strange gets sucked into that dimension and fights Kaecilius for the first time to defend the New York sanctum.

Librarian as warrior

At 1 hour, 26 minutes into the film, the final big action sequence takes place in Hong Kong, where the third and final sanctum is. Wong has traveled to Hong Kong, and we see him leading a group of warriors. He directs the warriors to “choose your weapon wisely.”

Wong then picks up his own weapon, which looks like some kind of club relic.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the warrior librarian

Wong then declares, “No one sets foot in this sanctum. No one.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the warrior librarian

And he stays true to his word, going outside to head Kaecilius off before he can enter the Hong Kong sanctum. The two square off, and Wong readies for a fight. Unfortunately, we don’t actually get to see Wong fight. By the time Strange arrives on the scene, the Hong Kong sanctum has fallen, and Wong has been defeated, dead in the rubble.

But luckily, Strange knows how to turn back time, so he manages to resurrect Wong, whose chest had been punctured by a rebar.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel librarian death

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel librarian resurrection

Librarian as comic relief

In the midst of all the action and drama, Wong then provides two unexpected doses of comic relief. First is Wong’s stunned reaction after Strange resurrects him. Strange expects a lecture from the librarian.

Strange: Breaking the laws of nature, I know.

Wong: Well, don’t stop now.

Strange then figures out a way to beat Dormammu and get rid of the zealots, who get sucked up into Dormammu’s dimension. Strange makes a quip that echoes his earlier schooling from Wong and Mordo.

Strange: You should have stolen the whole book, because the warnings come after the spells.

[Pause]

Wong [laughs]: Oh, that’s funny.

Both Strange and Mordo stop and stare at Wong, who is cracking up and shaking with laughter. This is the first time Wong has smiled, let alone laughed!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian cracks a rare smile

Final library scene

The films ends in the library, the same location where it began. As Strange puts back the Eye of Agamotto, Wong then sets up the upcoming Infinity Wars showdown.

Wong: Wise choice. You’ll wear the Eye of Agamotto once you’ve mastered its powers. Until then best not to walk the streets wearing an Infinity Stone.

Strange: A what?

Wong: You might have a gift for the mystic arts, but you still have much to learn. Word of the Ancient One’s death will spread through the multiverse. Earth has no Sorceror Supreme to defend it. We must be ready.

Strange: We’ll be ready.

Role of the reel librarians

The two Kamar-Taj librarians we meet, one who begins the film and Wong who ends the film, primarily serve as Information Providers. We see the first librarian onscreen for perhaps a total of 30 seconds, while Wong has a much bigger supporting role, with scenes throughout the film.

Wong never really changes; he is steady and steadfast. He is who he is, a Master of the Mystic Arts and guardian of the library and natural law. And even though his laughter at the end of the film is surprising, we already got hints earlier in the film that he had a (hidden) sense of humor. I would argue that Wong, along with nurse Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is one of the only characters in the film who remains completely trustworthy. He never loses faith in his mission, and the audience never loses faith in Wong. I would also argue that that trust also stems from the fact that he’s a reel librarian, as librarians are often used in cinema as shortcuts to establish trust.

Reel librarian roles are also frequently used to provide exposition and lead to clues that propel the plot forward. In each scene, Wong does both. Benedict Wong is also a first-class actor whose facial expressions and voice lend instant authority and credibility to the role. And thanks to his voice acting and verbal expression, his expository speeches never fall flat.

Wong also serves as Comic Relief throughout the film. His deadpan facial expressions and non-reactions to Strange’s jokes at the beginning of the film help lighten the mood, and the audience joins Strange in amazement when Wong cracks up at one of Strange’s jokes at the end of the film.

Librarian as right-hand man

When I was preparing screenshots I took while watching my DVD copy of the film, I noticed that when Wong is shown with another character (usually Strange) and in a stationary position (i.e. not walking across the screen), he is shown almost always on the right side of the screen.

He’s also often seen on the right side of the screen in extreme closeup, as evidenced below:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Why is this?

I would argue that Wong — ever loyal, ever steadfast — is (almost) always on the right side of the screen because he is always right, period. He’s intelligent, he’s dedicated, he’s ready to defend what he believes is right. It’s visual affirmation that what Wong believes is right IS right.

Kaecilius tries to goad Wong before the Hong Kong fight, taunting Wong that he will “be on the wrong side of history.” But we know better. Wong will remain on the right side of history.

I think it’s also a visual pun that plays off the idea that Wong is the right-hand man of Doctor Strange. He may be a right-hand man, but he is not a sidekick; Wong supports Strange, yes, but he is not subservient to Strange in the film. (Unlike the comics, in which he is Strange’s servant.) The reel librarian is the master who teaches Strange lessons, again and again, but he also owes his life to Strange. In the end, they will face the future together, side by side. “We’ll be ready.

There is one major exception to Wong being on the right side of the screen. When he laughs aloud at Strange’s joke, he is shown on the left side of the screen. The three major warriors are all in a row, with Strange at the center, Mordo on the right, and Wong on the left. (I repeated this screenshot below, so you don’t have to scroll up to doublecheck.)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Wong the librarian cracks a rare smile

I think Wong is shown on the left side of the screen in this scene to underscore the strangeness of this moment. The director breaks his visual shortcut for Wong’s character just as Wong breaks character by laughing aloud. It’s a subtle, but very clever, touch.

Changes from comics to cinema

In the comics, Wong is depicted as Strange’s “tea-making manservant.” The director, Scott Derrickson, also co-wrote the script, and he changed Wong’s character from an Asian stereotype to a more active role. I applaud this change, because Wong ends up a very interesting character and an inspirational reel librarian. I also have to admit that it was very nice to see not one, but TWO, reel librarians of color featured in this film (even though one literally ends up, err, on the chopping block).

I do, however, feel obligated to point out the controversy created by the film’s script and casting, particularly the casting of Tilda Swinton, a non-Asian actress, who was cast as the Ancient One, a significant Asian character in the comics. The character gets reframed as a Celt in the film, and Swinton does a great job, as always, bringing gravitas and laser-focus to her role. She is totally believable as an ancient, mystical, wise being. But I have to admit discomfort in knowing that a major Asian role was recast with a white woman, and that Wong’s character was written, at least in part, after-the-fact in order to offset that controversial casting; Derrickson felt obligated to include Wong’s character in the film after rewriting the character of the Ancient One. (But you don’t have to have just one Asian role! If you wanted to put a more feminine, or androgynous, spin on the Ancient One, why not cast an Asian actress?!) You can read more about this passive-aggressive type of racism, called “Orientalism,” here in this very interesting essay, “Orientalism Is Alive And Well In American Cinema.”

Benedict Wong himself was pleased with the changes to his character, stating in an interview:

“I’m certainly not going to be the tea-making manservant. We’re heading in a different direction. He’s more of a drill sergeant. There isn’t any martial arts for Wong in Doctor Strange actually, he’s more of a drill sergeant to Kamar-Taj. He’s one of the masters of sorcery.”

Although it’s clear that he did fight with Kaecilius in the Hong Kong showdown, we do not actually see Wong perform martial arts in the film, thereby avoiding another Asian cinematic stereotype.

Book cameo

I wanted to give a shout-out to Stan Lee’s cameo in Doctor Strange, which clocks in at 1 hour and 18 minutes into the film, during the chase and fight scene between the zealots and Strange and Mordo. Stan Lee is seen on a bus, reading a book and laughing, oblivious to Strange and Mordo slamming into the side of the bus.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Doctor Strange' (2016)

Cameo of Stan Lee

The book Stan Lee is reading is Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a book of Huxley’s experience taking psychedelic drugs and how that influenced this art. This cameo most likely plays off the long-held association between psychedelic drugs and the kaleidoscope imagery of the Doctor Strange comics (something Marvel disputes). Stan Lee laughs uproariously at the book he’s reading in this cameo, so perhaps he is dismissing this decades-long notion?

Last but not least…

Director Derrickon has also hinted that Wong has a significant role to play in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War film. We shall see! I plan on watching it this opening weekend and reporting back next week with a “First Impressions” type of post.

Are you looking forward to the Avengers: Infinity War film? Have you seen Doctor Strange? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

Avengers: Infinity War Trailer #1 (2018) | Movieclips Trailers” uploaded by Movieclips Trailers is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Doctor Strange. Dir. Scott Derrickson. Perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong. Marvel Studios, 2016.

Mellor, Louisa. “Exclusive: Benedict Wong on new direction of his Doctor Strange role.” Den of Geek, 27 June 2016.

Reader poll winner write-up: Possession

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!)

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The book that started it all

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:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The librarian at London Library

Let’s see how the researcher and the reel librarian “meet cute,” shall we? 😉

LibrarianBit of an old monster.

RolandYeah, but an important monster. It’s Randolph Ash’s.

LibrarianYes. Who are you with again?

RolandI’m Roland Michell.

LibrarianWho?

RolandProfessor Blackadder’s research assistant.

LibrarianIsn’t that Dr. Wolfe?

RolandWas. Fergus got the lectureship position at St. John’s… over me.

LibrarianOf course he did. Oh yes, Dr. Wolfe mentioned you. You’re that American who’s over here.

RolandWell, 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.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland and the librarian at London Library

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:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

London Library

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:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland Michell finds the letter

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Randolph Henry Ash hides the letter

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.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland Michell’s reaction to the letters

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The librarian’s look

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.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland hiding the letter from the librarian in London Library

Step 2:  Sliiiiiiiide over to the other seat behind the column and close the notebook. Done! Now you see him, now you don’t…

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland hiding the letter from the librarian in London Library

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:

RolandThey’re practically love letters.

EuanRather racy, actually.

RolandYou 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?

EuanYeah, 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:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Roland heads to his office at the British Museum

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

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!

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library files behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library files behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Teaming up

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.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Maud and Roland walk through a library en route to Maud’s office

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.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Dr. Maud Bailey’s office

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?):

RolandMaud, can I show you something? [digs into his bag and hands her the letters]

MaudAre these…

RolandThose are the originals.

MaudHow did you get them?

RolandI took them.

MaudTook them?

RolandI sort of stole them.

MaudWhere from?

RolandThe London Library.

MaudHow could you do that?

RolandIt was on impulse.

Here is Maud’s priceless reaction to the letters — and to Roland’s cavalier attitude to stealing:

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

Maud’s reaction to the letters

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.

Reel Librarians | Screenshot from 'Possession' (2002)

The research library stacks behind-the-scenes at the British Museum

Totally corrupted by this point, Maud’s smiley reaction to Roland taking the fax a rival researcher sent:

You’re shameless.

Perhaps “shameless” would have been a better title for the film? 😉

Sources used:

London Library” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Possession. Dir. Neil LaBute. Perf. Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle. Warner Bros., 2002.

Possession (2002).” IMDB.com.

Possession (2002 film)” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.

Possession (2002) Possessão – Trailer” uploaded by dezeroadezfilmes, Sept. 4, 2009, Standard YouTube license.

Possession (Byatt novel)” from Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., is licensed under a CC BY SA 3.0 license.