FILM PHONICS: “POSSESSION” & “ONEGIN”

Possession

* *.5

Director: Neil LaBute

Writers: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, and Neil LaBute

Producers: Barry Levinson and Paula Weinstein

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey, and Toby Stephens et al.

2002

Onegin

* * *.5

Director: Martha Fiennes

Writers: Peter Ettedgui, Michael Ignatieff, and Alexander Pushkin (poem)

Producers: Simon Bosanquet and Ileen Maisel

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, Toby Stephens, Lena Headey, and Martin Donovan et al.

1999

Byatt Riot to One Fiennes Day: Possession and Onegin

Week Fourteen of Film Phonics, coinciding with Thanksgiving 2005, offers a two-for-one special. Rather than picking one out of the two tied words, I decided to watch two films. For “possession,” the choice is obvious; for “gin,” I selected “Onegin” (Martha Fiennes, 1999). Both films engage historical settings and explore the consequences of loving, lying, and loitering about in egocentrism. Incidentally, they also feature actresses I watch on somewhat of a regular basis. Gwyneth Paltrow is a guilty pleasure; Liv Tyler a non-guilty pleasure.

I firmly believe that English and Australian actors (Gary Oldman, Christian Bale, Kate Beckinsale, Hugh Jackman, Cate Blanchett) can do American accents better than Americans (virtually everyone who’s tried) can do English accents, so why don’t casting agents, directors, and or producers hire accordingly? One must A). have very little faith in a film unless it’s led by a big-name American star or B). be completely delusional in thinking that audiences would forgive and willingly endure an American butchering the English accent.

Nevertheless, American still actors who take on parts requiring them to lose their American accent. Gwyneth Paltrow is one such actress. She nailed it relatively well in “Emma” (Douglas McGrath, 1996); she didn’t give me a headache in “Sliding Doors” (Peter Howitt, 1998). “Shakespeare In Love” (John Madden, 1998), her third English role, was charming enough to land her the Oscar for Best Actress. Unfortunately, in Neil LaBute’s 2002 film “Possession,” not only does Gwyneth speak in one of the more unbearable English accents of all time, but she also succeeds in proving that practice does not lead to perfection. It actually leads to pain.

Based on A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession: A Romance, Paltrow plays Dr. Maud Bailey, a British academic who helps American research assistant Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) uncover the truth about the relationship between two Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and Christabel La Motte (Jennifer Ehle). Gwyneth is mediocre at best, but Aaron Eckhart (“Erin Brockovich,” “In the Company of Men) holds his end of the film considerably well. I’ve not read the book, but I imagine that its character and emotional development is richer, more complete, and moving enough to elicit much sympathy from the reader.

LaBute’s film doesn’t impart to me any lasting thoughts. I enjoyed the attention to detail with sets as well as the occasional humorous remarks exchanged between Maud and Roland. There are also a few cleverly constructed shots where the past transitions to the present, but LaBute only incorporates it three times: once with a car and a train, a second time with a door, and the third time with a train station and a car.

Some critics have commented that there isn’t enough footage of Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle. While I also would have enjoyed more scenes devoted to how Christabel mesmerized Randolph in the first place, the film is more focused on Maud Bailey and how her life is changed as a result of delving into the two lovers’ past. One of the more profound lines in the film is something that Christabel says to Randolph before they push their mutual affection to its most intimate level. She tells him, “I cannot let you burn me up, nor can I resist you. No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed.”

Sadly, I finished watching “Possession” feeling something between burned and bored.

LaBute strikes out with his film, but Martha Fiennes (sister of Ralph and Joseph) possesses a more masterful command over “Onegin.” Also known as “Eugene Onegin” and based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “Evgenii Onegin,” this period piece is about a Russian aristocrat (Ralph Fiennes) who catches the eye of a young woman named Tatyana Larina (Liv Tyler) but, in his contempt for life, does not realize he shares her feelings until it is too late. Lena Headey and Toby Stephens also star in “Onegin;” she Tatyana’s sister Olga, to whom he, Vladimir Lensky, is engaged. That Onegin would even enter the lives of these country folk—as he would call them—is entirely serendipitous. Upon inheriting a house and some land by his late uncle, Onegin moves to the country from St. Petersburg for a spell. He spies Vladimir “trespassing” on private property, becomes his “friend,” and then meets Olga and Tatyana.

With no needs, desires, or ambitions, whatever Onegin does is due to his having nothing better to do. Ralph Fiennes portrays this superficially unfeeling, ennui-soaked character wonderfully. Contrary to my initial assessment of Liv Tyler’s ability to step in the role of a Russian woman from the 19th Century, she performs very well and does not appear misplaced. In fact, in the Liv films I’ve seen—“Empire Records,” “Stealing Beauty,” “That Thing You Do!,” “Inventing the Abbotts,” “Armageddon,” “Plunkett & Macleane,” “Cookie’s Fortune,” and “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy—she has always exuded the right combination of naïveté and resolve to gain the viewer’s sympathy not pity.

LaBute’s and Fiennes’ films have equal caliber set pieces, and both succeed in creating a visually stunning environment for the characters, but “Onegin” surpasses “Possession” in the narrative department. The former is based on a novel-poem, the second on a novel. Perhaps the evaluation should not be focused on which film adaptation is superior, but which original work is of stronger merit. A Booker Prize-winning “fantasy” written by a contemporary English literary scholar cannot hold a flame to a narrative poem penned by one of the greatest Russian poets and father of modern Russian literature.

Every week, Stina Chyn puts her viewing habits in your hands. Readers vote on five random words posted at Back Talk every Tuesday. The winning word dictates what she will have to watch and review the following week as that word must appear in the title of the movie. Choose wisely!




Posted on November 29, 2005 in Features by
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