One of the movie's departures is to change the lead male character, Roland Michell, from a Brit to an American, perhaps to draw in domestic audiences (a lame reason), perhaps to accommodate the casting of LaBute favorite Aaron Eckhart (not much better). Roland, a scruffy researcher, works for Professor Blackadder (Tom Hickey), an expert in the life of fictional 19th-century romantic Randolph Henry Ash (Jeremy Northam), a former poet laureate famed for his expressions of devotion to his wife. One day in the London Library, examining Ash's own copy of a book, Roland discovers what appears to be a love letter from Ash to a woman not his wife. It doesn't take a genius to recognize this as a potentially earthshaking find, the sort that can set an academic up for life.
When his boss is too dismissive even to listen to Roland's tale, the young man takes it upon himself to follow up. On a lead from caddish associate Fergus Wolff (Toby Stephens), he contacts Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow), an expert in the life of Christabel LaMotte (Jennifer Ehle), a less-renowned poet, who is Roland's best candidate for the mystery lover.
At first, it all seems rather unlikely to Maud, given that Christabel, who just happens to be her great-great-great aunt, had only one known romance, and that was with another woman. Nor is the somewhat formal, frosty Maud exactly wild about the intrusion of this presumptuous American. But soon the pair uncovers yet more lost documents that lend credence to Roland's idea. They begin to visit the locales of this 140-year-old love affair.
Of course, it's easy to predict that Roland and Maud are going to end up falling under the spell of Ash and LaMotte's epic passion and, in some seemingly less-grand modern way, relive it.
The story may be a direct descendent of Henry James's The Aspern Papers and its 1947 Hollywood film version, The Lost Moment, but the film that is likelier to come to mind is Karel Reisz's 1981 version of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, which likewise intercuts past and present. Curiously, the intercutting in that film developed in reverse, adding modern scenes to Fowles's period piece in an attempt to re-create the book's ironic voice. It may sound more unnatural than what LaBute does, but it ends up being more effective.
Likewise, the thoughts and inner lives of the modern protagonists go almost altogether untranslated to the screen. Roland and Maud keep making elliptical references to their pasts that are never fleshed out or made clear.
The cold distance that LaBute brings to the material keeps the viewer at arms' length. The story contains a series of plot revelations, each of which should move us, some of them profoundly; yet they feel so evenly weighted, so much like similar puzzle pieces dropping into place at regular intervals, that they have no impact.
All that is left of the emotional content are a few scenes of romantic/sexual passion, only one of which could be said to achieve anything close to a grand level. It's too little, too late, and one can only wonder what someone like, say, Anthony Minghella (Truly Madly Deeply, The English Patient) could have done with the project.