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SYLVIA (director: Christine Jeffs; screenwriter: John Brownlow; cinematographer: John Toon; editor: Tariq Anwar; music: Gabriel Yared; cast: Gwyneth Paltrow (Sylvia Plath), Daniel Craig (Ted Hughes), Jared Harris (A. Alvarez), Blythe Danner (Aurelia Plath), Amira Casar (Assia Wevill), Michael Gambon (Professor Thomas), Andrew Havill (David Wevill); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Alison Owen; Focus Features; 2003-UK)
“This is one of the better made and more believable films about poets, one that should be cherished for its rich depiction of its subjects.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

New Zealand director Christine Jeffs’ (“Rain”-2002) radiant but slow-moving biopic is on the martyred poetess Sylvia Plath, who became celebrated in poetry circles when her complete works became published after she committed suicide by sealing off her kitchen and inhaling the carbon monoxide fumes from her turned on oven in 1963 — when she was 30. It’s a quality conventional production accomplished in the high-art melodramatic style of Masterpiece Theatre. The shadowy photography by cinematographer John Toon is painted in dark blues, greens and browns, as the poetess searches for the light at the end of the tunnel that leads to happiness.

In an interview Ms. Jeffs mentions that “Sylvia is very much a love story – and Sylvia’s story, as she tries to be both a creative person and a mother. I was interested not only in the love story but also in the implications of two powerful creative forces being brought together and how that made their lives so difficult for each other.”

Unfortunately the estate of Plath-Hughes refused to grant permission for use of the poetry, so the filmmakers were left with no choice but to squeeze lines from some of her poems into the dramatics. Something screenwriter John Brownlow, usually specializing in documentary films, and Ms. Jeffs, did a good job of giving the viewer a sense of Plath’s poetry despite not using the whole poem. They used fragmented poetry lines which had the effect of creating an interest for Sylvia’s unusual dark imagery that goes beyond the film and should encourage the more curious viewer who is unfamiliar with the poetess to now read her poems and have a go at the difficult images with some more confidence that it can be more accessible.

For those curious but not knowing much about the doomed marriage between the solid middle-class New England native Sylvia Plath and the ruggedly handsome, son of a carpenter, Yorkshire-born Ted Hughes, this film is made to order and is probably the kind of audience that this film can best reach. Though the even-handed critique of the stormy marriage might not persuade either the supporters of Plath or Hughes, as those sides seem set in stone. For those taking sides with Plath, they demonized Hughes after her death for actually causing it: by his absence in her time of need, by his womanizing and by using her overwhelming love for him to humiliate her and thereby intensify her mental unbalance. Later, there were also serious questions about the way he acted as executor of her literary estate. The increased dislike of him grew in intensity as she became associated posthumously with the feminism movement as an icon for a victim of a bad marriage and he coldly never said a word in public about their relationship until in 1998 when he dedicated Birthday Letters to her, which won the Whitbread Poetry award. He died in that year from cancer at age 68.

Gwyneth Paltrow gives a fantastically alive performance and convinces as the brilliant but tortured poet Sylvia Plath, suffering from mood swings, mental unbalance and lack of a father-figure since her beloved German immigrant biology professor father, specializing in the study of bees, died when she was a child. Also, one can only wonder if she had at her disposal those modern anti-depressants if things wouldn’t have turned out differently.

The film opens with Sylvia’s lines read from “Lady Lazarus” her signature poem, “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.” That sets the tone for what has driven literary critics to theorize all sorts of reasons for her suicide and has given her a mystique that keeps gaining her new readers.

On a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge, after graduating from Smith and recovering from a suicide attempt through sleeping pills, Sylvia meets the man she seems destined for at a school jazz dance in 1956. The dashing Ted Hughes is played by Daniel Craig with great presence and with the poet’s same rich voice, as he sweeps Sylvia off her feet from the first moment they meet. At the dance he takes an earring from her as a memento and four months later they are married and he has his first book published on his totemic verses “The Hawk in the Rain,” which won the Harper’s Poetry Prize. Even just before their marriage Sylvia is willing to take a back seat to her hubby as she looks at him with total loving affection as they play a game of dueling Shakespearean verses with friends, as they belt out the verses in a speeded up tempo.

In 1957, having gained her graduate degree Sylvia returns to Smith in Northampton to accept a teaching post, while the gifted Ted is giving writing workshops and lectures on the campus of the nearby University of Massachusetts in Amherst from 1957 to 1959. The relocating couple stop first in Winthrop, near Boston, at Sylvia’s haughty and non-supportive but sympathetic mother Aurelia’s house (played by Ms. Paltrow’s own mother, Blythe Danner). Mom can’t warm up to the stern Ted and warns him never to hurt Sylvia, as she senses he’s ambitious and is a battler struggling to get ahead and will stop at nothing to get his goal–even if it means hurting her genius but fragile daughter. For that summer mom lets the couple use the family Cape Cod summer home to rest and write. Sylvia can’t write and becomes domestic, which doesn’t please hubby. As a cure for her writer’s block, she is told by Ted that the subject for her poetry should be herself. After teaching for a year, she gives up her post because it’s too time consuming and prevents her from writing. The next year she works as a receptionist in the psychiatric clinic of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and receives on the private treatment for her depression in McLean (where she was treated before with electric shocks for her suicide attempt) and also attends the poetry classes at night of Robert Lowell–her most influential teacher. The movie doesn’t mention these events, instead shows Ted on campus appealing to the coeds and Sylvia growing increasingly jealous.

Returning to London in 1959, Sylvia’s book of poetry The Colossus was published in October 1960. She had also begun writing her autobiographical The Bell Jar, and had given birth to a daughter. Moving to the country and living in a farm house in Devon in 1961, Sylvia has a second child–a son. Meanwhile the ever charming Ted begins an affair with a married casual acquaintance Assia Wevill (Amira Casar) and when Sylvia can’t stop the affair, even when acting embarrassingly rude, they separate. It is interesting to note that Ted married the French actress Assia after the suicide and she gave birth to a son. But a few years later she committed suicide and took her son’s life, and did it in the same way as Sylvia.

While separated, Sylvia is comforted by the supportive British literary agent A. Alvarez (Jared Harris). He gives her sensible advice not to count on death as being such a glorious thing, advice that evidently could never be absorbed coherently by the increasingly troubled woman who has a death wish. At this time, Sylvia strangely felt both depressed and exhilarated because she felt free without Ted to write with an energy she had never had before and wrote her most mature work– the Ariel poems. While going through severe mood swings, there are a few touching scenes with her kindly neighbor Professor Thomas (Michael Gambon). He’s the father-figure she always needed, but he does not know what to make of her odd behavior on the night of her suicide where she stands in the hallway happily taken with the glow of the light bulb.

The film is meticulously well-done and researched, as its faults are only minor–it might glorify suicide without really intending to and doesn’t show the poetess in her development as a writer, as it only belatedly brings on fragments of her later poems when she has already ripened. But, the most glaring fault was an overwrought musical score that doesn’t fit the sober mood of the story.

Yet if the viewer is interested in an intelligent biopic and following characters cast as writers who are actually interested in reading and not have the all important question about what went wrong in the marriage easily answered with shallow responses–then this film is all that and much more. Enough details are provided for the viewer to determine if Britain’s 1984 Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, was a saint trying to deal with his wife’s mental illness as he thought of himself in his poems or if Sylvia Plath nailed him in her poems as a cold fish who heartlessly deserted her and the kids. The truth is probably somewhere in their poems and just like Sylvia’s last act was an unwritten poem; the film also has an ending that requires more work on the part of the viewer. This is one of the better made and more believable films about poets, one that should be cherished for its rich depiction of its subjects.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”