|"No one can stand in a fire and not be consumed."|
|Time: 102 mins.|
Being a fan of the book, I've been looking forward to this film for some time. LaBute does an admirable job adapting this highly literary story about two scholars who become lovers while unearthing a secret romance about two rather famous English poets. Without a doubt, this is more romantic and normal than any other movie he's directed. However, in the end, it's nothing all that interesting or exciting. Mostly, because the modern love story just doesn't work. Paltrow and Eckhart are certainly good-looking people, but there's absolutely no chemistry between them whatsoever. Clearly, they were cast to make watching two academics, who basically do nothing but read love letters, more appealing. Their romance certainly pales in comparison to the one their discovering, so maybe that's the reason they come off as two icicles trying to thaw. Or perhaps it's just that their characters aren't as well-developed as the others. We learn very little about them over the course of the film, except that they're both afraid to get burned by love. A truly distinguishing characteristic. Otherwise, he's the goofy, unscrupulous American and she's the coolly, intelligent, British ice queen. How profound.
What saves the audience from total boredom is the story within the story. The illicit love between Randall Ash (Northam), a world-famous poet known for his single-minded devotion to his wife, and Christabel LaMotte (Ehle), one of the first feminist, i.e. lesbian, poets, who's work inspired women in generations to come, practically burns down the screen. They managed to keep their relationship a secret until Roland Michell (Eckhart) finds some letters 100 years later. Barely holding onto his position as a research assistant at the British Museum, he decides to take his leap of intuition to Maud Bailey (Paltrow), the foremost authority on Christabel LaMotte, as well as a distant relative of the poetess. Maud is skeptical of his discovery. They have proof that Ash and LaMotte met at a dinner party, but there's nothing in her research to indicate that their relationship went any further. Except the letters Roland found. What they began as a wild goose chase, quickly turns into the academic find of the century. Not only does it prove that Ash wasn't really a one-love kind of guy, but that Christabel's greatest poems were inspired by a man instead of a woman.
Reading the letters inspires similar feelings in the scholars, who are stymied on the path to love, not by societal restrictions, but by their own fears. As Maud and Roland delve deeper into the mystery, they come to realize that some things are better left dead and buried. The love shared by Ash and LaMotte destroyed both their lives, though neither seems to have regretted the stolen hours. Whilst all this is going on, a competing team of scholars is hot on their trail, trying to beat them to the revelatory punch. Though a part of the novel, this aspect could have been left out. It didn't really add to the story and would have given more time to Maud and Roland, which is desperately needed. The story ultimately ends on an upbeat note, with the scholars finding success on and off the page. It's a bittersweet denouement for our poets, who loved and punished in equal measure. What happens to them isn't unique for the time in which they lived, but the intense performances by Northam and Ehle make it seem like the first time you've heard such a tale. They connect on every level and give this piece its' heart. Their scenes has high potential for hokeyness, but instead are deeply moving and wonderfully romantic.
Much like in DEAD AGAIN, another lovers across time flick, the period sequences look more vibrant and sumptuous than the modern ones. I guess it can't really be helped, but it does take away from the mood and style of the film. The transitions used by LaBute to move between time periods aren't elaborate, yet are still evocative and clever. They give the film a touch of whimsy and strengthen the connection between the couples. The ending is a bit overdone and obvious, but somewhat touching all the same. It seems LaBute has a softer side, though I wouldn't have believed it before watching this film. This isn't a romance that will knock your socks off with lust, but if you like a little mystery with your kisses you'll probably enjoy this well enough.