In Possession, Gwyneth Paltrow plays an esteemed British literary professor who's supposed to be an uptight gender-studies feminist, but the moment she walks on screen, wearing her platinum-silk hair up in the sort of bun that once signified soft-core bottled passion, she's the most radiant, swankily sexy poststructuralist you've ever seen. Her costar, Aaron Eckhart, plays an American English scholar, and Eckhart, with a grin that's all frat-house beer and cheer, is similarly afflicted with a too-hot-for-the-room aura. When he takes his shirt off to leap into a river, it's supposed to be a key moment of flirtation, but instead it's the coyest of camp: Eckhart isn't just lean, he's cut (it must be all that time spent shelving items in musty libraries), and Paltrow looks more than ready to devour him.
These two team up for what's meant to be a literary-erotic adventure, going through a stash of hundred-year-old letters that reveal a hidden and explosive love affair. Adapted from A.S. Byatt's 1990 novel, ''Possession'' was cowritten and directed by the formerly savage Neil LaBute (''In the Company of Men''), who, after his screwball stretch with ''Nurse Betty,'' clearly relished the chance to stretch even further. Yet just because LaBute has the inclination, and the competence, to make a decorous academic love story doesn't mean that he's suited to it.
''Possession,'' at heart, was a novel about sitting around reading letters, and the epistolary form doesn't translate. The movie is intelligent yet lifeless; it's all wisps and abstractions. The Victorians, declaring their love by quill pen, are meant to be purer in their passion than the ''liberated'' moderns, but this irony, recycled from ''The French Lieutenant's Woman,'' is tame and old hat now. Each time the film flashes back to the historical amour, there are Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle, letting sensual love dissolve propriety the way it has in every third-rate Brit costume romance since Merchant met Ivory.