TBT: Possession (2002)


This is a classic case of ‘not every book can be adapted to film. Possession by A.S. Byatt won the Booker Prize in 1990, and while it’s full of juicy plot that entwines, essentially, a detective story of two modern-day literary scholars with the romantic lives of two Victorian poets, the novel is also a lyrical tour de force full of actual poetry and historical letters that create subtle rhythms and emotional depths perfect for writing and difficult for filming. Thus, Possession (2002) the movie is a very mixed bag and unsatisfying, especially if, like me, you love the book.

The modern framing story is changed significantly in the movie by making the male scholar a hunky yet kind of dumb American (Aaron Eckhart) instead of a nebbishy Brit, which makes no sense. Also, I just don’t get Gwyneth Paltrow as the female scholar AT ALL.

So let’s ignore them and look at the Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), based on Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), based on Christina Rossetti. Christabel’s lesbian lover, Blanche Glover (Lena Headey), is also part of the historical flashbacks as the modern characters uncover the hidden affair between Ash and LaMotte. The subtle 1850s-1860s costumes were designed by the always excellent Jenny Beavan and reflect the upper-class artistic world Ash, LaMotte, and Glover live in. The look is not flashy, but it’s rich, soft, and conveys each character’s status and occupation well.

Possession (2002)

The Victorian hair styling in this film is excellent.

Jennifer Ehle, Possession (2002)

Jennifer Ehle is perfection in every historical film, there’s no denying it.

Possession (2002)

Christabel often wears greens and floral prints, reflecting the whimsical, nature-based poetry she writes.

Possession (2002)

Her lover Blanche is a Pre-Raphaelite painter, shown here in an artist’s smock style gown.

Possession (2002)

In happier times, Blanche and Christabel dress similarly in blouses and waistcoats.

Possession (2002)

Harmonious clothes and colors, for a time.

Possession (2002)

Christabel is the model for Blanche’s paintings, dressed in a medieval gown with her hair flowing free, much like Rossetti painted his wife.

Possession (2002)

Let’s just say that Blanche gets a stereotypical ending.

Possession (2002)

Dark gown reveals a green floral print.

Possession (2002)

Lovely traveling ensemble (though interesting that this is a bonnet-free production; I prefer the hats, but bonnets were more common).

Possession (2002)

The pale seaside-travel suit on Ash helps visually sets the action apart from the dark London scenes.

Possession (2002)

They start to admit their feelings, and the costumes become more bare, by Victorian standards.

Possession (2002)

Then there’s that corset scene…


Have you seen the movie of Possession? Did you read the book?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

11 Responses

  1. picasso Manu

    Chemise under corset, yeah! And no bobby pin shortage? Exceptional production, that is. So, they dropped the ball on the storytelling? bah, details, details… ;)

  2. Kerry

    Love the book. Love Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle, but the rest of the movie was disappointing. I agree, there was just too much magic and complexity in the novel to ever translate to film in a satisfactory way.

  3. thedementedfairy

    I adore the book [and have had to replace it several times as my ex-husband kept GIVING COPIES TO HIS STUDENTS. Not the only book he did that with either. Swine. Hope he gets nut rot. Anyhew, yeah. That film. Meh. Way too complex to film, especially with AMERICANS. Ew.. exit muttering darkly

  4. elizacameron

    I absolutely adored the book and now I need to read it again. I loved the Victorian sections, but hated the scenes between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart. Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam were perfection. It’s interesting that Angels and Insects was such a successful adaptation of A.S. Byatt but not Possession. Of course, the former was a novella. And the costumes are gorgeous, although the cape looks like the one Meryl Streep wears in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, another film I need to watch again. And Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s sister was named Christina, not Christabel.

  5. Donnalee

    Hmm, I recall being disappointed in the book, but then again I was thirtyish years younger and thought I was the smartest thing on earth. I’ll have to revisit it–great hairstyles in that film, though.

  6. ladylavinia1932

    Also, I just don’t get Gwyneth Paltrow as the female scholar AT ALL.

    Don’t you ever get tired of bashing her, whether she gives a good performance or not?

  7. Charity

    I love this film. Re-watched it a couple of weeks ago; still find it romantic and tragic. Haven’t read the book, but one of these days, I should. I think for me the weak link in the cast is Aaron Eckhart. I just… don’t care for him. At all.

  8. Karen K.

    I liked the book but must admit that long poetry sections make my eyes glaze over — I always end up skipping them. And I agree, the best parts of the movie were the historical sections. Aaron Eckhart is woefully miscast, he is nothing like the scholar described in the book.

    At the time I watched it I was fairly neutral about Gwyneth, so I didn’t have any strong feelings one way or the other. Who cares about her when you could be watching Jennifer Ehle and Jeremy Northam, who are basically perfection?