Sylvia offers little insight into a complex psyche.
Thursday, October 30, 2003
Like Frida Kahlo, American poet Sylvia Plath has become a pre-feminist icon struggling against societal constraints while searching for identity in the shadow of a more celebrated and successful husband. But unlike Kahlo, who fought for every minute of the life granted her, Plath is almost as well known for her suicide at age 31 as she is for her poetry.
Filmmaker Christine Jeffs pays homage to the icon in Sylvia, her thoughtful and elegantly composed fictional biography of the last decade of Plath''s life. But as respectful as Jeffs is of her subject, she never captures the fearless, often abrasive vitality of Plath, the person and writer who is evident in her best poems. And without that crusty brilliance to complement the despair, Jeffs'' Sylvia mostly comes across as a victim.
Working from an original screenplay by John Brownlow, Jeffs approaches the material as a love story between Plath and her husband, English poet Ted Hughes. The movie begins in 1956 when Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow), attending Cambridge University in England on a Fullbright scholarship, meets dark, dashing Ted (Daniel Craig) at a party. She praises his "great big crashing poems," just published in the campus literary magazine, as "the real thing." He whirls her onto the dance floor, and into a heady romance. When Ted makes a prestigious sale, they marry and move to America, where Sylvia gets a college teaching job. As Sylvia explains to her Boston Brahmin mother (a nice turn by Paltrow''s real-life mom, Blythe Danner), she will work while Ted becomes "a great poet."
Very soon, Sylvia finds herself unable to write. She''s a bold teacher in the classroom, but Ted, a much clumsier guest lecturer, is the literary darling cooed over by students, matrons and groupies. Ted''s star continues to rise while Sylvia gives birth to two children and becomes a stay-at-home mom, struggling to keep writing. Even when she manages to put together a volume of new work, she''s not considered important enough to be reviewed by the boys club of the London publishing scene. She and Ted split up over his infidelities, and Sylvia enters a period of intense creativity coupled with emotional despair.
While Ted is treated with sympathy, the narrative proceeds so exclusively from Sylvia''s melancholy perspective, we never even know until the end if Ted is actually having extramarital affairs or if Sylvia only imagines them. The point may be to make us feel the isolation she might have felt, but the effect is to deny her power as a personality beyond her relationship to Ted.
The best moments show Sylvia stoked with words, wit and passion. (In one exhilarating scene, she stands up in a boat Ted is rowing to spout Chaucer''s "Wife of Bath" tale at a herd of complacent cows.) But there''s not enough of her poetry or wit in the film to balance the melancholy. Her very first words onscreen are from her poem "Lady Lazarus": "Dying is an art like everything else. I do it exceptionally well." Upon first meeting Ted, she prophecies "I will have my death of him," and at one of their earliest encounters, they trade Romeo and Juliet''s death vows. These incessant portents tacitly suggest that Plath''s most important accomplishment was her death.
Jeffs puts together a beautiful package, from the rapturous autumnal colors of the Cambridge scenes to the watery interior blues and greens as Sylvia sinks deeper into her malaise. Paltrow delivers exactly the Sylvia that Jeffs wants, growing ever more bloodless and pitiful. Sylvia lets us feel Plath''s pain, but offers little insight into her complex psyche.
Sylvia [2 1/2 Stars]
Directed by Christine Jeffs.
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Blythe Danner.
(Rated R, 110 min.)