Possession Obsession: In Praise of the Three Hankie Number

24 Jun

I stumbled on Possession early in my Jeremy Northam obsession. Not only
was I enthralled by his luxurious Victorian poet hair, the nudity of his
lovely torso, and the excellent acting, which almost goes without
saying, but, amazingly, I also managed to notice the other elements of
the movie. It turns out Possession is a tightly knit mystery juxtaposed
with a melodramatic weeper. The melodramatic weeper or the Three-Hanky
Number (THN), is an oft maligned but terribly important film genre.
Without THNs women would probably burst into tears in their place of
work because of paper clip mishaps on a weekly basis. To paraphrase Jane
Austen, I’m sorry to generalize about so many people at once, but most
men have no need for THNs. (They have porn and Quentin Tarantino). This
is why I tend to watch movies like Possession when my husband is not

“Yay, we’re going to have sex aren’t we!?”

A THN is not a chick flick, which is defined as a movie mostly about
female bonding and female empowerment that women like to watch together.
Fried Green Tomatoes and Beaches are chick flicks. Possession, An
Affair to Remember
, Camille, Return to Me and Now Voyager are THNs.
Usually, THNs revolve around a doomed couple who love despite impossible
situations and walk with open eyes toward their inevitable heartbreak
because “it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at
all.” There is even a whole sub-genre of Three Hankie films about lovers
separated by death: Ghost, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Truly, Madly

What Ash is thinking on his hike

Possession opens with a beautiful shot of Jeremy Northam walking
toward the camera through a pastoral landscape in a blousy,
open-collared poet shirt, his lovely, Neil Diamond-esque locks backlit
by the sun. This scene and others like it (notably Colin Firth’s
emersion from a certain non-canonical pond in a certain miniseries) have
been known to cause spontaneous ovulation. I have a screen saver at my
work which I call Boots and Shirtsleeves that features lots of these
moments from historical romantic dramas. Women frequently take tiny
little five minute holidays at my desk watching the Boots and
. I do my bit for morale in this way and I get to look at
lots of pictures of Jeremy Northam in poet shirts. It’s a win-win, you
might say.

“Make that Boots, Shirtsleeves and Corsets Screensaver.”

Possession tells the dual story of a pair of modern academics (Gwyneth
Paltrow, Aaron Eckhardt) on the trail of a literary mystery involving a
secret affair between two famous and seemingly unconnected Victorian
Poets (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle). In Neil LaBute’s adaptation of
A. S. Byatt’s novel, the moderns and the Victorians are posed in the same
landscapes, often overlapping the same frame. This has a somewhat
disconcerting effect the first few times you see the movie. (With scenes
like Jeremy Northam freeing Jennifer Ehle from her corsets by
candlelight you are likely to watch this movie more than once.) As the
modern lovers work slowly toward a romance whose only obstacle is their
own hang-ups, the Victorians dive head first into certain doom, their
pain made worse by the fact that they are poets, self-awareness being
part of the job description. This makes a wonderfully ironic
counterpoint for the moderns who are so obsessed with over-analyzing
every aspect of their newly born romance that they threaten to smother
it before their first kiss. Kids today, with their baggy pants and their
post-structuralist criticism!

“How can we bear it. Every day we shall have less.” See what I mean? Self-awareness can be a real bitch!

LaBute’s film, as gorgeous and heartfelt as it is, suffers from
adaptation syndrome. If a novel is to be made into a feature-length
film, its world will have to be contracted. To this end, characters are
eliminated or combined, plots streamlined, situations simplified and
casting choices are made with an eye to box office rather than
faithfulness to the source. (LaBute was pretty heavily criticized for
replacing the homely, bookish English hero with an American of rugged
good looks who doesn’t look particularly studious or intellectual.) Most
damaging is the fact that so little can remain of the prose and, in
this case, poetry that often make a book great.

Mollusk hunting was never this hot. Also, I think that Ash and Christabel may experience the only sunny Yorkshire holiday in the history of ever

Possession has all these flaws and yet, it does Byatt’s novel justice
by focusing on the straight-forward aspects of the literary mystery and
the romance. The latter should be an awkward business, with dialog
culled from letters and poems, but Ehle and Northam pull it off
beautifully. The poets are rather loosely based on the Brownings who had
a secret affair and passionate correspondence which ended in elopement,
not in the tangled web of scandal and misery that befalls our fictional

Spiritualists get up Ash’s nose. I would provoke him with episodes of The Ghost Whisperer just to see his “angry” face. Le sigh

Northam and Ehle make the most of their limited screen time. They move
smoothly from the courtly formality of their early acquaintance to
intimacy with a remarkable authenticity. I have about twenty favorite
moments in this movie, but one of the best is when both the poets bring
pretend wedding rings on trip to Yorkshire in order to try to secure
lodgings together. There are a lot of emotions floating around in this
scene, each of them walked through by the actors and registered without
much dialog. The scene ends with Ash’s somewhat cheesy declaration to
Christabel, “you take my breath away.” Cliched? Yes! You can tell a great actor by how they take a potentially awful line and make it, um, squee-worthy.

Another squee-worthy moment: Ash admits he’s a little afraid

Another hallmark of a great actor is the way in which they use their
reactions as effectively as they do in the moments when they are the center
of attention. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in a scene in
which Ash has a seemingly prosaic conversation with a little girl who he
discovers to be his daughter. His eyes fill with tears, his voice begins
to crack, but he carries on talking to the little girl because he
doesn’t want to tip her off that there is anything unique about their
meeting. OK, I’m starting to cry as I type this. Dang, this movie! I
guess that is the fourth hankie, right there.

by Jennythenipper

Screencaps courtesy of http://caps.desert-sky.net/

With many thanks to Jenny for contributing to The Jer Blog. Jenny is the author of three books about classic film stars published under the name “Jenny Curtis”. She is equally well-known in the world of classic movie geekdom as “Nipper.” If you’ve ever seen Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth, you may remember “Jerry the Nipper” on which the nom de blog is an obvious pun. To read more movie reviews by Jenny, visit her blog Cinema OCD, where she reviews classic movies.

15 Responses to “Possession Obsession: In Praise of the Three Hankie Number”

  1. Glaros June 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm #

    I haven’t seen “Possession” yet, but this great, diverting text has aroused my curiosity. As soon as I have bought the DVD and my fiancé is in a Pub to watch Real Madrid … :-))

  2. Linnigee June 24, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    Wonderful piece, Jenny! As it is going over the 100 degree F. this afternoon, I’ll stay in the air conditioning, haul out my hankie and watch Ash and Christabel.

  3. Ansie June 24, 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    That last scene with Ash and his daughter chokes me up just thinking about it. For me, it’s the most powerful scene in the movie.

    Possession would have been a much better film with more emphasis on Ash and Cristabel and less on the modern scholars/lovers.

    Thanks for a wonderful post, Jenny. I haven’t seen Possession in ages but like Linnigee I may just sit down and watch it today.

  4. MarianneC June 24, 2010 at 5:12 pm #

    “LaBute’s film, as gorgeous and heartfelt as it is, suffers from
    adaptation syndrome. If a novel is to be made into a feature-length
    film, its world will have to be contracted. To this end, characters are
    eliminated or combined, plots streamlined, situations simplified and
    casting choices are made with an eye to box office rather than
    faithfulness to the source.”

    I went to a screening and Q&A with Neil LaBute of this movie, afterwards I went up to him to ask him about the changes. His reply was something along the lines of ‘oh you read the book.’ I couldn’t help snickering at that. Still it was a gorgeous (Jeremy!!!) movie.

  5. henrysmummy2003 June 24, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    It is inevitable that such a dense, wordy book is going to have to be simplified for the screen, and on the whole I think LaBute did a great job (so long as you’re not looking to see an exact replication of the novel). But I agree with the critics that Aaron Eckhardt was not right in his role. He’s a good enough actor in other things I’m told, but in Possession, for me, both he and Gwyneth could have been replaced by planks of wood and we’d not have noticed too much. It’s definitely the Victorian part of the movie that I enjoy the most. How passionate is Ash…? Ovulation city over here…

    Thanks Jenny, for a wonderfrul post. 🙂

  6. Jennythenipper June 24, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Glaros: Yes, do watch it. It’s on Netflix instant.

    Linnigee: I was home sick and it was very hot. I stayed home in the cool lovely basement watching Possession.

    Ansie: I agree. I think we need the moderns to advance the plot, the way the story is structured. But after the first time through the movie, I just didn’t care about them, that much. Although it’s nice to see Toby Stephens and Tom Hollander in their small roles, it hardly keeps that part of the film going.

    MarianneC: What were the changes that bugged you most, I’m curious? I watched the movie first, so I don’t find the changes hugely irritating. One odd one, I think is that Blanche and Christabel’s relationship is murkier in the book. We never really know if they are lovers or not. It’s more clearly spelled out in the film.

    Gill: I have always been baffled by Eckhardt’s casting. But you’re right, who notices Roland when there is Ash….

    • henrysmummy2003 June 24, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

      Well indeed…Jeremy is completely spellbinding as Ash. And Possession has a special place in my heart as the only movie with both Jeremy AND Toby Stephens in it.
      I’m told Eckhardt is a friend of LaBute’s and has appeared in a few of his movies. He just looks deeply uncomfortable throughout the film, and Gwyneth uses her ‘period drama’ English which is NOT how real English people speak.
      I must re-read the book…I confess I find A.S. Byatt rather challenging (I’m lazy, I don’t like to use my brain too much when I’m reading!).
      Of course, the real scandal of this movie is the cutting of the scene where Ash dives into the river/pool…

    • MarianneC June 24, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

      “What were the changes that bugged you most, I’m curious?”

      Roland. I have no problem with Aaron Eckhart, but when LaBute cast him as Roland, the character as written in the book just fell by the wayside. And I was kind of looking forward to seeing Fergus (Toby Stephens) striding around in nude … didn’t happen.

      • henrysmummy2003 June 24, 2010 at 10:41 pm #

        Oh my goodness, as well as Jeremy in the water, we were also deprived of naked Toby???

      • Jennythenipper June 24, 2010 at 10:56 pm #

        Marianne: Yeah, I just read that bit last night about Fergus. Maud describes Fergus ranting around naked in the morning telling her that she has penis envy.

        I know what you’re saying Gill, the poetry and prose are both quite dense. I’ve been reading more “real” Victorian poetry lately so it seems easier. I think the first time I read the book, I actually just skipped the poems. (That is how I got through Lord of the Rings, too.) I’m always a bit suspicious of fiction writers who want to pawn off their poetry on you.

        And as for the pool diving scene: we was robbed! Look at this:

        JN obviously worked out for this movie. The least Labute could have done is leave it in! Gah!

        • henrysmummy2003 June 25, 2010 at 12:05 am #

          Jeremy had obviously spent serious time in the gym, it was very cruel of LaBute all round…thank goodness for that picture…
          Poetry I can take, I’m a big poetry buff, but somehow, there was too much in the book (even for me!), and I wanted to know what would happen next, plotwise (I’m so shallow!) rather than spend ages wading through spoof poetry which could just seem to be a means of persuading you of the super intelligence of the author (or, even worse, authorial masturbation!). I appreciate that the poetry, if I had been patient enough to read it all, would no doubt have aided my understanding of what was happening, but I confess I did skip quite a lot too…shame on me! I promise I’ll wade through it all the next time…

  7. LauraP June 25, 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    Great post! Thanks Jenny and Gill.

    I love it: “Spontaneous ovulation”!

    I agree that we could have done with less of the (post-)moderns and more of the Victorians. The fact that they shot more scenes of them that didn’t make it to the final cut is killing me. Very high on my Jeremy Wish List is a DVD of Possession with those scenes ‘restored.”

    Re: the poetry. I have to admit I skipped most of it the first time I read the book, too. The second time around I read some of it. Maybe the third time I’ll read it all. Or maybe I’ll just skip to the juicy parts!


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