Poetic License

Repressian era: Gwyneth Paltrow in Possession.Photo: David Appleby

For a movie that purports to be about the passions of love and language, Possession is remarkably prim. Neil LaBute, who directed from a script he co-wrote with Laura Jones and David Henry Hwang based on the celebrated 1990 A. S. Byatt novel, specializes in wretched people behaving wretchedly, so perhaps his new movie is intended as a total makeover. But, as Nurse Betty also demonstrated, whimsy and romance are not really in LaBute’s range. Though wildly overrated, his aggressively misanthropic movies and plays, such as In the Company of Men, Your Friends & Neighbors, and The Shape of Things, at least held you. Possession piddles away as you’re watching it.

The film, like the novel, is a literary puzzle with parallel love stories. Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American scholar in London on a fellowship to study the Victorian poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), a Robert Browning–ish figure who, despite his legendary love for his wife, is discovered by Roland to have been carrying on with a leading feminist poet of the day, Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle). (Both Ash and LaMotte are fictitious.) Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow) is the English academic who discovers, with Roland, a trove of love letters from Ash to LaMotte, and fans out across England with him piecing together clues. You can draw a straight line between the evolving passion of the Victorian lovebirds and their contemporary counterparts. We’re meant to see how the Victorians, for all their repressions, were more in tune with eros than the modern-day lovers are.

But this comes across mainly because Northam and Ehle, who know how to be stylish and fired-up at the same time, are so much more interesting to watch than Paltrow and Eckhart, who never get a rhythm going. They’re playing intellectual conceits rather than characters: He’s the scruffy American, and she’s the brittle Brit; they’re so wrapped up in intellectual gamesmanship that they have lost the power to connect. (In the book, Roland was working-class English, which brought the class system into the mix.) LaBute may be kinder and gentler in Possession, but he’s as schematic about human nature as ever.

In Blood Work, which he directed from a script by Brian Helgeland based on the Michael Connelly novel, Clint Eastwood has come up with a great way to camouflage the fact that he can’t get around like he used to. He plays Terry McCaleb, an FBI profiler with a bum ticker who receives – get this – a heart transplant. Retired from duty, he lives on a boat in San Pedro Harbor, where the greatest danger to his health would appear to be boredom. Unlike other action stars, such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger, Eastwood doesn’t downplay the effects of age. (Although women half his years still have eyes for him.) He retains his trademark snarl, his voice still rasps, and he can still handle a Magnum. But he’s made frailty a part of his makeup now – he’s the AARP action hero. Eastwood’s current persona may be more of a commercial choice than an aesthetic one, but at least it has the grace of humility. When he sprints in Blood Work, he looks as winded as the last-place finisher in a marathon.

This doesn’t mean that Eastwood’s new film is marvelous. It’s mostly a pro forma police procedural spiced by a baroque twist that Eastwood doesn’t really know what to do with. It turns out that Terry’s heart belonged to a murdered woman. Graciella, her sister (Wanda De Jesus), wants him to track the killer and ends up romantically involved with Terry. The psychosexual ramifications of this pairing are so bizarre that you keep expecting the movie to make something out of them. But no: This is just another Hollywood valentine. Eastwood isn’t just pre-Freudian; he’s preconscious.

All this might have been embarrassing except that Eastwood’s earnestness has its own stoic charm. There’s something nutty but also heroic in how he plays this macho-man-with-the-heart-of-a-woman premise with a straight face. He doesn’t act the clown, leaving that to others, notably Jeff Daniels, who plays Terry’s neighbor in the boat docks and who gives a sly, goofy performance that recalls some of the smarter moments in Dumb and Dumber. He’s a welcome counterbalance to Terry, who pops heart pills and often looks stricken enough to swoon. Eastwood might want to think about playing Camille next.

The Manchester music and dance scene, from punk to post-punk to acid house, is the subject of Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People, one of the sharpest and funniest movies about the music business ever made. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and extending from the late seventies to the early nineties, it covers the Sex Pistols and Joy Division, the founding of Factory Records and the Manchester dance club the Hacienda, as well as the ascendancy and crash dive of the group Happy Mondays. The impresario holding everything together is Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), TV host and Factory co-founder, who continually turns to the camera and clues us in on what’s happening. As Wilson moves through the years, he goes from a foppish Oscar Wilde hairdo to tie-dyed shirts and ruffled neckties until, in the end, he looks a lot like David Frost. He has a gyroscopic gift for steadying himself in the maelstrom. Winterbottom really gets the look and sound of this era in which pathos and slapstick and psychosis were all jammed together. Punk and the rave culture come across without a smidgen of moralizing, which makes the manic intoxication bubbling up before our eyes seem all the more real. It all had to end, of course, but the movie does justice to Wilson’s plum observation that this was the “moment when even the white man starts dancing.”

Directed by Neil LaBute; starring Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Blood Work
Directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Daniels.
24 Hour Party People
Directed by Michael Winterbottom; starring Steve Coogan.

Poetic License