This film has two love stories within each other. The key to that statement is love. Many modern love stories are about the explosion and not the suspense. Neil LaBute's film understands that sex and love start in the mind.
The first is the secret affair of a Victorian poet named Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam, GOSFORD PARK), noted for being a devote husband, and lesbian poet Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle, SUNSHINE). The second is Ash scholar Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart, IN THE COMPANY OF MEN) and LaMotte scholar Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE), who are secretly investigating the Ash and LaMotte affair.
The story works like a mystery. What’s refreshing about the story is the look at career scholars, who devote their lives to one topic. The first time Roland meets Maud, she uses her superior knowledge of LaMotte as a way of feeling superior to Roland. He has discovered a letter from Ash to LaMotte, which challenges everything she has thought about her favorite poet. Maud is the central character and through the journey of discovering more about LaMotte she is allowed to open up herself. Likewise, Roland has been burned in love so often that staying distant and in his head is safe.
As competitive as Maud and Roland are at first they find a common bond within common interests. Their ideal of love comes from poetry and they are experts in the field. But Ash and LaMotte's romance is more unlikely. For Ash and LaMotte the affair is the kind of romance that they have been writing about. In their Victorian world, passion was simply on the page. If sex starts in the mind, then passion was locked away in the brain behind a chastity belt.
The only problem I had with the film is that Paltrow and Eckhart may be too pretty for their roles. I’m not saying that scholars can’t look like that, but their emotional issues seem like issues from people who would have a much more difficult time finding a date. But that complaint is small because I feel it doesn’t ruin the film only weakens it from reaching a greater emotional potential.
That said the cast is great. Paltrow works better than Eckhart. Her beauty never gets in the way of her smarts. LaBute doesn't glam her up and she can capture a studious quality that feels natural. Eckhart isn't bad at all, but his impeccable good looks make us suspicious of his standoffish attitude toward women. Northam brings a reserved passion to his role, which feels like a man who has found something he has been looking for his whole that he thought he had already found. Ehle is sexy and brings fire to her part. She is a liberated woman of her day and she knows what she wants. Another notable performance comes from Lena Headey as LaMotte's lover Blanche Glover. Both Headey and LaBute treat her feelings for LaMotte with respect.
Through his direction, Neil LaBute (NURSE BETTY) captures your attention quickly and keeps you riveted throughout. He rewrote the script originally written by David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones based on the novel by A.S. Byatt. He knows how to develop the two storylines convincingly together. Few stories within stories work this well. Real skills is what LaBute possesses. This is another very good film from 2002 that should be checked out.
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