Home > Reviews > POSSESSION – Gabriel Yared

POSSESSION – Gabriel Yared

possessionOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Occasionally, I write a highly personal soundtrack review, and I make no apologies for this review of Possession being one of them. I saw this film for the first time in November 2002, with the woman who is shortly to become my wife. It was the first movie we ever saw together, on a cold winter night in London’s Leicester Square, and for some reason both film – and music – weaved a magical spell on us. The poetic language and vivid imagery, beautiful locations and inherent passion and romance of Neil La Bute’s movie was electric, and contained a great deal of personal resonance for the two of us. As a result, Possession has become an enduring favorite of ours, with the music easily ranking as one of the best “sleeper” scores of 2002.

Possession tells of two inter-connected love stories that span over a hundred years, from Victorian England in 1859 to modern-day London. Adapted from the best-selling novel by A.S. Byatt, it stars Aaron Eckhart as Roland Mitchell, an American history scholar working for the British Museum. Researching the life of former poet laureate Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam, in flashback), Mitchell accidentally stumbles across a number of letters which seem to reveal a hitherto undiscovered relationship between Ash and the reclusive early feminist and occasional poet Christabel La Motte (Jennifer Ehle, also in flashback). Digging deeper into the past, Mitchell’s research brings him into contact with the icy Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), Britain’s leading expert on the life and work of La Motte. Sensing an important discovery, the two delve into the lives of Ash and La Motte, uncovering a deeply passionate but ultimately torrid love affair which consumed them completely. However, following in their footsteps brings them into contact with fiery emotions, and soon sparks of passion begin to flare between Roland and Maud as well.

As a romance, Possession is an unmitigated triumph, perfectly capturing the nuance and ritualistic elements that both societies play. With Ash and La Motte, their courtship is conducted initially by letter, the two of them releasing their feelings for each other through page upon page of purple prose – the two of them could not meet in person because of Ash’s infertile wife, and La Motte’s lesbian partner. Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle are superb in their roles, hinting at burning desire via their letters, eventually consummating their love in a sumptuously-shot sequence in a North Yorkshire coastal resort.

Roland and Maud, despite seeming much more modern in their approach, undertake just as elaborate a courtship, with neither party willing to truly surrender their feelings for fear of being hurt. Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow share a mutual love of history and discovery, and pepper their relationship with a healthy dose of Transatlantic humor. The screenplay, by David Henry Hwang and Laura Jones, is ornate in its use of language and metaphor, but beautifully understated, while the cinematography (by Jean-Yves Escoffier), production design (by Luciana Arrighi) and costumes (by Jenny Beavan) are superb and sumptuous, especially during the flashback sequences.

Looking at the score objectively, one could argue that Gabriel Yared is merely re-treading the lush, romantic ground he covered in scores such as The English Patient, City of Angels and Message in a Bottle. True, if you have heard any of these epic love scores, you will have a pretty solid idea of what Possession sounds like. The only thing missing is choral work, and acoustic guitars. However, there is just something about this work which makes it stand out from the others. As with most of Yared’s popular mainstream fare, Possession is scored for full orchestra, with special parts for solo violin, solo clarinet, and piano performed by Yared himself.

To illustrate the two romance plotlines, Yared makes the obvious choice and uses different thematic ideas to illustrate the differing time periods. The Victorian era, and the love affair between Ash and La Motte, is scored with gorgeous, sweeping melodies and an unashamed luxury. The waltz time employed by Yared in moments such as these seem to mimic the elaborate courtship rituals played out by people of that era – the honorifics and etiquette coming together to form a formal dance of hidden yearnings, leading up to an inevitable conclusion. Cues such as ‘Gentle Possession’, ‘Renewed Correspondence’, ‘A Hotel Room in Whitby’, and the two ‘Possession’ tracks literally drip with romantic desire; as though the pent-up passions held in check by a stifling era of manners and politeness have suddenly been let loose, and the floodgates of love and eroticism allowed to open fully.

Alternatively, the hesitant romance between Roland and Maud is a little more restrained, a little less florid, and is highlighted by a tinkling theme (oddly reminiscent of the music from the old J.R. Hartley Yellow Pages commercials!) heard in various guises, but mainly on gentle piano accompanied by a searching violin, in cues such as ‘Maud and Roland in North Yorkshire’, ‘Christabel’s Room’ and ‘Let Down Your Hair’. However, in several instances, Yared allows thematic fragments from the one love story to creep into the other, maintaining the notion that the discovery of more detail about Ash and La Motte leads directly to the development of the relationship between Roland and Maud. In his unashamedly gushing liner notes, director La Bute calls this decision by Yared “simple and ingenious; his talent grabs us and soothes us and holds us near”.

Other cues, such as the bouncy and modern ‘The British Museum’ and ‘Dolly Hides a Secret’ convey the excitement and urgency of academic discovery, while the bright scherzo ‘Journey to Whitby’ adds an energetic lightness to the score. The neo-classical ‘Etude to Christabel’ highlights Yared’s own pianoforte performance and knack for historical accuracy through music, and the whole thing is topped off by ‘Possesso’, a heartbreakingly beautiful operatic aria based on the Ash and La Motte theme, with Italian lyrics by Peter Gosling and Michela Antonello, and performed by Spanish tenor Ramón Vargas. When Vargas sings of “amore” with such depth of performance, it makes you want to weep.

As I said in my opening paragraph, Possession left a great impression on me – although, whether I was influenced by my own personal journey into love, I cannot say. Music, in all its forms, is such a highly personal and subjective thing anyway, one cannot help but be biased by your surroundings and the people around you at the time you first experience something, so maybe I’m merely stating the obvious. But, whether you happen to be in the throws of passion yourself or not, Possession remains a grand piece of film music, a superb album, and a rewarding listening experience for anyone with an inclination to wallow in Gabriel Yared’s brand of grand romance.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Possesso (Aria) (written by Gabriel Yared, Peter Gosling and Michela Antonello, performed by Ramón Vargas) (5:04)
  • The British Museum (2:10)
  • Gentle Possession (5:27)
  • Discovering the Letters (3:23)
  • Maud and Roland in North Yorkshire (3:20)
  • Christabel’s Room (1:59)
  • Maud and Roland (3:41)
  • Blanche’s Diary (1:58)
  • Etude to Christabel (2:36)
  • Let Down Your Hair (3:51)
  • Dolly Hides a Secret (2:42)
  • Possession (5:14)
  • Reading the Letters (5:17)
  • Blanche’s Suicide (2:11)
  • Exile in Brittany (2:27)
  • Renewed Correspondence (4:05)
  • You Have a Daughter (2:26)
  • Journey to Whitby (1:47)
  • A Hotel Room in Whitby (1:54)
  • Poignant Thoughts (1:56)
  • Possession (3:26)

Running Time: 67 minutes 02 seconds

RCA Victor 09026-63882-2 (2002)

Music composed by Gabriel Yared. Conducted by Harry Rabinowitz. Orchestrations by Gabriel Yared and John Bell. Featured musical soloists Rolf Wilson, Nick Bucknall and Gabriel Yared. Recorded and mixed by Jonathan Allen. Mastered by Peter Mew. Album produced by Gabriel Yared and Graham Walker.

  1. February 23, 2017 at 8:00 pm

    I’m so glad to see this positive review of a filmscore I love. The only other review I’ve seen is a snarky one which fault Yared for not using more modern-sounding music for the 20th century parts of the story. I’m also amazed that the late James Horner, who foisted the awful “My Heart Will Go On” on the public, chided Yared for not knowing how to write for film, when he replaced him as composer for Troy. I adore this lush, Mahlerian score. If I could find notation of “Possesso” or, even better, the music with the original English lyric, I’d be in heaven

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