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POSSESSION *

CAST: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Graham Crowden, Trevor Eve, Lena Headey, Tom Hollander, Anna Massey, Toby Stephens

DIRECTOR: Neil LaBute


There's a vicious rumor going around that Neil LaBute, the sharp, unnerving auteur of "In the Company of Men," "Your Friends & Neighbors" and "Nurse Betty," actually directed this drama about two contemporary scholars who fall in love while researching a secret affair between a pair of Victorian poets. If the rumor is true, LaBute has no one but himself to blame (unless it's screenwriters David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, who collaborated with him on the adaptation of A.S. Byatt's novel) for this anemic, tedious wheeze.

But shouldn't it have something going for it, considering that it stars Oscar-winning Gwyneth Paltrow and LaBute staple Aaron Eckhart as the feminist, veddy British Maud Bailey and the macho, bluntly American Roland Michell--and that it co-stars the distinguished Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam as Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash, a mousy lesbian poet and a respectably married literary lion who engage in a bit of not-so-Victorian sex?

It should indeed have something going for it. But it doesn't. There is absolutely nothing of substance to grab onto here. Maud and Roland's biggest problem, as it turns out, has nothing at all to do with their conflicting methods of arriving at the truth about Christabel and Randolph. The real, thoroughly modern problem faced by these dismally neurotic soulmates is that they are afraid to commit. They've both been burned, you see, and they're desperately afraid of being burned again. The biggest problem for actors Paltrow and Eckhart, on the other hand, is that they have zero chemistry. Didn't anyone bother to introduce them? It's they who seem to come from separate centuries, if not planets.

As for Ehle, she appears to be working overtime on her Meryl Streep imitation, but without much success. Northam, at least, manages not to make us forget how splendid he was in "Gosford Park," Lena Headey plays the role of Christabel's loopy long-time sweetheart for considerably more than it's worth, and Toby Stephens is suitably silly as a scoundrel who schemes to snatch the fruit of Maud and Roland's literary sleuthing out from under them. You won't care whether he succeeds on his sneaky mission; you'll only care about not being trampled in the stampede to the exit.

I plan to dump this rubbish from my mind and patiently wait for "The Shape of Things" to come. That's LaBute's film version of his own lacerating, intellectually substantial play, and it's set solely in the century he knows best.