Movie Review: Sylvia
By Mark Caro, Chicago Tribune Movie Writer
Poet Sylvia Plath is most famous for killing herself, and "Sylvia" isn't likely to change that equation. The movie tips its hand from its opening Plath quotation: "Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. "
Sure enough, "Sylvia" is more about Plath's death than her life - not that it focuses on her suicide so much as it never lets her come alive in the first place. It's a dreary movie about a dreary character, offering little insight into her poetry or the mental illness that ultimately conquered her.
Screenwriter John Brownlow and director Christine Jeffs have built this biopic around Plath's passionate, tumultuous marriage to British poet Ted Hughes. As played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Plath has a flighty, impetuous air. She may not appreciate a bad review of her early poems while on a Fulbright Scholarship in Cambridge, England, in 1956, but when she sees that the reviewer is the handsome - and, more important, talented - Hughes (Daniel Craig), all is forgiven and then some.
Sure, Plath is turned on by his looks, but the real aphrodisiac is his talent as a poet. She's excited to become part of his world, even as she finds that she can't subordinate her own artistic ambitions indefinitely.
With his hair flopping mischievously over one eye, Craig's Hughes is a strong presence, and he seems every bit a match for Plath, even as she tells him of a previous suicide attempt. But when Sylvia's mother, Aurelia (Blythe Danner, Paltrow's real-life mom), tells Hughes, "Be good to her always," you know that's when his intuitive antennae will begin to falter.
Perhaps to its credit, the movie doesn't try to make Plath into some sort of saint or symbolic victim of a society that encourages a woman to sublimate herself to her mate. But it's hard to know how we're supposed to feel when she turns out to be so unsympathetic and impenetrable.
Her erratic behavior begins with her spending inordinate time baking instead of writing, and she grows moody, frustrated and depressed after giving birth to two children. She also becomes intensely jealous of Hughes and suspects him of having affairs with his attractive, worshipful students.
But as much as the movie conveys the couple's initial passion, it fails to give much sense of what their life together truly is like - what he sees in her, how they relate day to day. So when Sylvia turns hostile toward him, we have little clue whether she's just being irrational or is perceiving changes in emotional temperature that we haven't experienced.
The movie, which otherwise is told from its title character's perspective, finally resorts to showing us a scene with Hughes apart from Sylvia just to resolve for the audience the infidelity issue, though you still don't know whether she was being paranoid or perceptive beforehand.
New Zealand director Jeffs' previous movie, "Rain," was a subtle, insightful coming-of-age film, but her work here feels more fitted to a mold. Like "Pollock," "Iris" and "The Hours," "Sylvia" presents a troubled, mercurial artist and a spouse fighting a losing battle to keep her (or him) on an even keel.
You see the artist in the act of creation here, but you couldn't really say whether it's a product of inspiration or self-absorption. And her suicide doesn't carry the emotional weight of, say, "The Hours." Instead, as you see her abandoning her sleeping children, you're just reminded of why many see suicide as the ultimate selfish act.
Jeffs includes one shot of Sylvia just sitting naked, which is probably supposed to be revealing of something other than what Paltrow looks like naked. The movie would have been better off actually getting beneath her skin. Plath may consider dying to be an art, but sometimes art can be dull.
Directed by Christine Jeffs; written by John Brownlow; photographed by John Toon; edited by Tariq Anwar; production designed by Maria Djurkovic; music by Gabriel Yared; produced by Alison Owen. A Focus Features release; opens Friday, Oct. 24. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: R (sexuality/nudity, language).
Sylvia Plath - Gwyneth Paltrow
Ted Hughes - Daniel Craig
Al Alvarez - Jared Harris
Aurelia Plath - Blythe Danner
Professor Thomas - Michael Gambon
Assia Wevill - Amira Casar