There's nothing like a little love to turn research into commercial sexiness. Given that precept and working from A.S. Byatt's novel, director Neil LaBute masks the plodding nature of historical research with not one, but two love stories: one the 19th century subject of the research; the other the modern day researchers who just happen to be a very attractive pair. Withholding until the end the development of their academic quest into a love relationship fools nobody -- if you've ever seen a love story before, you can see it a mile off. Nor is it anything less than obvious that this is a star vehicle, designed to herald Gwyneth Paltrow's command of an English accent to the world. Fortunately, she's got that and a whole lot more to offer.
It all starts when American research assistant Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart), working on his fellowship under a British professor, sits in a London library studying a book of poetry by 19th century poet, Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam) and discovers several letters folded into the pages. They appear to be of a personal and romantic nature written by the poet himself to another significant poet of the time, Christabel Lamotte. Before this moment a liason between these two has never been suspected. If authentic, it's a major discovery and is likely to produce big waves in the academic world as well as to enhance the career of a financially struggling discoverer.
With something like that in mind, Michell proceeds to abscond with the papers and shows them to a fellow researcher who puts him in touch with Maud Bailey (Paltrow), the local expert on 19th century poetry in general, and on Ash in particular, especially as she's distantly related to the poet. Her reputation as a "ball-buster" is borne out by her first aloof reactions to this American whose casual style and unshaven, raffish appearance is not at all what she deems appropriate. This is a lady who doesn't suffer fools, and it's going to take more than American laid back charm to melt down the crisp manner. But the rugged interloper has shown her material and a line of further inquiry that can spell intellectual dynamite, and fill in big gaps in the known life and times of her principle subject of study.
Foregoing anything personal, the two set off in a mode of objectivity as they search for further clues and evidence of the historical affair suggested by the letters. This is a reasonable depiction of the best of what researchers do, fueled by discovery and possibility, finding energy in the quest for knowledge. As the layers of past events are stripped away, we see in flashback the hidden love story from the past and why it needed to be carried out in secret. Ash was married at the time he fell in love with Lamotte and she, an active feminist, was involved in a lesbian relationship. This was a relationship that presented some challenges in the Victorian modes of the day.
Intrigue enough, but LaBute furnishes more drama in the modern day competition among scholars for the notoriety that comes of such a major discovery. Toes get stepped on, theft is attempted, shotguns are pointed, threats and revelations are made -- to the point of silliness. And, by the end of it, the youngsters can't hide their feelings toward one another any longer and the historical lovers have had a productive though dangerous tryst.
In the 19th century episode, dashing Jeremy Northam has a splendidly cool manner in his stylish portrayal of the Victorian poet devastated by a forbidden love. And, as the other side of that attraction, Ehle presents exquisite grace. Aided by corsettry and setting, she conveys classic stateliness amidst her passion for Ash. Her face is of a structure that belongs on stamps or coins. Yet with all that high bred allure, she has no trouble conveying the depth of her passion and convincing us of its pains and pleasures.
Aaron Eckhardt as an easy going scholar in an uptight self-serious environment should impress audiences on both sides of the pond with what seems his true nature.
And, Gwyneth Paltrow... It's been said that she's the American actor who can best emulate a British one. We won't argue the point since it wasn't an issue in this film from the get go. What we will say is that she cements our regard for her with every venture. She is adept at maintaining taste and proportion even while at her most sensuous and vulnerable. This is an actress with great awareness and complexity, one very much in command of the power of nuance in the realm of screen magnification.
It's no mistake on director LaBute's part that he chose two veterans from Merchant Ivory, designer Luciana Arrighi and costumer Jenny Beavan who must have greatly enjoyed the duality of their time period assignments. And, the production of parallel time is set in just the right visual tones by French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier.
Aside from the emotional manipulation between the two moderns for the sake of story structure and dramatic emphasis, which felt forced rather than real, this is a fine formulation for lovers of love stories. After all, it's not about one of them facing their mortality ("Sweet November", "Love Story", et al). Instead, it offers wit, charm, acting skill and not a little sensual intensity.
The Soundtrack Album