Possession is a sumptuous, century-spanning romantic epic that finds its spark in the words that can quietly send a fleeting attraction into a full-blown love affair. In other words, for those familiar with his work, it’s the last thing you would expect from writer-director Neil LaBute.

In past works, LaBute has boldly skewered male misogyny (In the Company of Men), explored the bloody battlefields of sexual warfare (Your Friends and Neighbors) and turned the notion of a fairy tale on a very bleak ear (Nurse Betty). That’s pretty emotionally nihilistic territory for someone who’s a devout Mormon. 

But tossed-off digs at rascally British academics is about as nasty as Possession gets. Instead, the movie is a wholly earnest, but believable, drama with two parallel stories that are of equal, compelling interest.

Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an American in England, barely scraping by while helping a professor research Randolph Henry Ash — a well-respected, 19th-century British writer who not only wrote a series of popular love poems, but was also Queen Victoria’s poet laureate. While perusing a book that once belonged to Ash, Roland finds love letters penned in the author’s hand. But they clearly are not addressed to his long-time wife, to whom Ash’s devotion has been revered for the last century.

Sensing a huge literary-world discovery, Roland pockets the letters and forms the conclusion that they were meant for Christabel LaMotte — a contemporary poet of Ash’s who happened to be a lesbian and a feminist at a time when neither was considered acceptable. To back up his idea, Roland seeks the assistance of Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), a British scholar of LaMotte’s who initially laughs off Roland’s hypothesis but indulges his whims upon seeing his determination. As the details of Ash and LaMotte’s relationship unfold, Roland and Maud must contend with their own feelings of romance toward one another.

Possession is a film entranced by the grand, romantic idea of love, namely how it can outlast this mortal coil when applied to paper. Tentatively and cautiously, Roland and Maud overcome their personal barriers to share that spell. As characters, that’s easy for them to do. But for an audience not easily fooled by such a potentially schmaltzy notion, it’s harder. But LaBute is so skillful at making the passionate prose take flight with emotion that the audience is swept up too, and the film does not stumble into a sentimental trap.

The drama of Possession is so tightly wound that the mere reading of letters burns with a stately fire. In the flashback sequences, LaBute mostly avoids big, showy scenes of dialogue and allows Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle — who portray Ash and LaMotte, respectively — to deliver nicely understated performances. The film is full of quiet, telling facial-expression moments for them, as well as for Eckhart and Paltrow in its modern-day portions.

As the impulsive American soul in the rule-abiding British circuit, Eckhart is spot-on. He overcomes LaBute’s overly scripted onslaught of fish-out-of-water jokes in the first act to establish Roland as a real character, who struggles with whether his personal and professional convictions are the right ones to stand by. And yet again, Paltrow turns in a graceful and classy performance, one so natural that it seems almost effortless.

Working hand in hand with the romance are Possession’s more mystery-based aspects. English teachers will be proud to note that the amount of clues hinges to some degree upon how well Roland and Maud can analyze the literature Ash and LaMotte left behind. It’s only near the end that LaBute falters with this element. A laughable confrontation with grave robbers in a cemetery feels more Scooby-Doo than Jane Austen.

Thankfully, it’s only a minor miscue, and the movie rights itself to end on a note that is not only poignant, but keeps with the film’s overall spirit. From its cinematography (which evokes such strong feelings of fall that you’re apt to feel a chill) to its persuasive romantic focus, Possession is the work of someone who’s not excepting a rule, but showcasing his diversity as a filmmaker.