Review: ‘Sylvia’

This artfully crafted look at the mutually destructive relationship between young American poet Sylvia Plath and British bard Ted Hughes takes pains to accurately represent their personalities and the downward spiral of their marriage. Expect reasonable biz in upscale markets, but story's insularity and unrelieved gloom will make breakout to a wider audience difficult.

As grim as much of Sylvia Plath’s life may have been, it wasn’t as relentlessly bleak as the movie “Sylvia.” This artfully crafted look at the mutually destructive relationship between the young American poet and British bard Ted Hughes takes pains to accurately represent their personalities and the tragic downward spiral of their marriage. But there’s a big piece missing from the picture’s center: the all-consuming connection that brought the couple together in the first place is never made palpable. Continuing interest in Plath, the project’s tony pedigree and Gwyneth Paltrow in a meaty role she was meant to play spell reasonable biz in upscale markets, but story’s insularity and unrelieved gloom will make breakout to a wider audience difficult.

Having craved acclaim for all of her short life, Plath achieved almost immediate posthumous recognition in 1963 after she famously committed suicide at age 30 by turning on the gas in her kitchen oven while her children slept in another room. U.S. publication eight years later of her autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar” under her own name helped make her a soulmate of and inspiration for at least one generation of students, feminists and would-be poetesses, and publication of Hughes’ Plath-inspired collection “Birthday Letters” in 1998, and the English poet laureate’s death shortly thereafter, sparked revived fascination for their complicated, doom-laden love affair.

Although told from an adolescent’s p.o.v., New Zealand helmer Christine Jeffs’ first feature, the 2001 “Rain,” also dealt with the painful and adulterous dissolution of a marriage. Working from a script by first-time screenwriter and vet TV documaker John Brownlow, Jeffs intently trains her focus here on the rarefied literary scene at Cambridge, circa 1956, and the instant complicity that develops between Fulbright scholar Plath and the broodingly handsome and talented Yorkshire lad Hughes.

Although pic includes Plath’s celebrated provocation of biting Hughes on the cheek and drawing blood on their first meeting at a party, their screen romance is strangely bloodless thereafter, which robs their story of an intense core element and eliminates an electric charge that should have energized the drama as it is overcome by betrayal, recriminations and despair.

As the film has it, the two were fated to wind up together, but mostly for the negative reason of how they played into one another’s most vulnerable and self-defeating traits. Dialogue is loaded with foreboding and premonitions of death on Plath’s part, and it’s easy to see that Hughes’ wandering eye will sooner or later lead him to other women’s doors. Given the preordained ghastly end to their union, Jeffs and Brownlow take an unnecessarily straight path getting there.

Still, there is an estimable integrity to the respect and fidelity with which the film regards its subjects, as well as an honesty in its attempt to illuminate the essences of these difficult people. Coming together, as portrayed here, in a meeting of minds more than anything else, Sylvia (Paltrow) and Ted (Daniel Craig) quickly marry and go to teach in the former’s native Massachusetts, where Ted comes under the skeptical scrutiny of his wife’s hawk-eyed mother, Aurelia (Paltrow’s own mother, Blythe Danner).

Then, and afterward, when they return to England, Sylvia is shown having trouble concentrating on her own literary output, whereas she tirelessly promotes her husband’s work with some success. When her first volume of poetry, “The Colossus,” is published in 1960, she is crushed by the scant attention paid to it, although she does receive crucial support from one writer, Al Alvarez (Jared Harris), who continues to play an important role in her life.

Things go much further south when the couple takes up an isolated life at a farmhouse in Devon. Ever in a fragile state and prone to suicidal thoughts, Sylvia becomes unhinged when she (rightly) suspects her husband of having an affair with Assia (Amira Casar), the all-too-available wife of another poet. After burning his papers, Sylvia kicks Ted out and goes on a creative binge during nocturnal writing sprees, the only time the impoverished artist can get free from motherly duties to her two little kids.

But as much as she insists to Alvarez that she’s relieved and happy to be able to write again, Sylvia is consumed by her obsessions and fury at Ted’s infidelity. She comes to feel like “a negative of a person,” as she puts it, as she pursues a fatiguing and destitute life in a small Primrose Hill flat once occupied by Yeats, without heat or phone, friendless and far from family. Spurned in her advances toward Alvarez and rejected once again by Ted, who tells her Assia is now pregnant, Sylvia goes into a creative frenzy before finally succeeding in what was not her first suicide attempt.

Unfolding under almost uniformly drab skies and in even drabber rooms, Plath’s life is painted in uniformly dreary shades of emotional angst and domestic distress, as if the filmmakers felt the need to give a rigidly deterministic reading to Plath’s life journey. In fact, quite apart from Plath’s eventful pre-Hughes period, many details of the real-life record are ignored that could have been pressed into the service of a more varied texture. For some time after getting married, Plath was actually quite happy, if the biographies are to be given credence; she also took pleasure in being a mother. And at least initially, Plath was enormously assisted and inspired in her work by Hughes, who was an accomplished mesmerist. Indoctrinated into the occult by his mother, Hughes dabbled in the black arts, mind control and hypnosis, which he used on his wife for creative ends. None of this makes it into the film.

Physically, too, Hughes is underrepresented. Variously described by Plath as “hulking,” “the strongest man in the world” and possessing “a voice like the thunder of God,” and discernable in photographs as an imposing, quasi-Byronic figure, Hughes is none of these things as impersonated by Daniel Craig. The actor has the requisite sweeping brown hair and plausibly portrays the idea of a self-absorbed, intellectually domineering poet, but tends to hold himself in reserve rather than to become the unchained wolf needed to convince as Hughes himself; too often, the man comes off more like a grumpy sourpuss than as a magnetic artist. The only contempo actor who comes to mind as having the physical presence, athleticism and rough-edged seriousness to pass for Hughes is Liam Neeson, and he’s 20 years too old for the part.

Paltrow, by contrast, is spot-on. Perfectly representing the East Coast breeding and well-turned-out look of a smart ’50s girl with a literary bent, Paltrow runs the gamut from boldly impassioned artist with wildly romantic personal and career ambitions she fully intends to fulfill to tormented fatalist and terminally jealous woman unafraid to act out her darkest fantasies and self-projections. A master of British accents, Paltrow here excels at something different, the mid-Atlantic intonations Plath herself affected when she moved to Blighty. If one were to listen to recordings of Plath up against Paltrow’s readings, one would be hard-pressed to tell them apart.

Although she shows an admirable tendency to get a good fix on the heart of a scene, Jeffs underplays things at times and abbreviates some exchanges, particularly later ones between Sylvia and Ted. Supporting characters are well if briefly drawn and craft contributions work toward the common goal of atmospheric gloom. At least in print caught, post-synch dialoguing and spotty sound mix were all too apparent.

Sylvia

U.K.

Production

A Focus Features release presented in association with BBC Films, Capitol Films and U.K. Film Council of a Ruby Films production. Produced by Alison Owen. Executive producers, David M. Thompson, Tracey Scoffield, Robert Jones, Jane Barclay, Sharon Harel. Co-producer, Neris Thomas. Directed by Christine Jeffs. Screenplay, John Brownlow.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor and Atlab color, widescreen), John Toon; editor, Tariq Anwar; music, Gabriel Yared; production designer, Maria Djurkovic; supervising art director, John Hill; art director, Jane Cecchi; set decorator, Philippa Hart; costume designer, Sandy Powell; sound (Dolby Digital), David Crozier; supervising sound editor, Christopher Ackland; digital visual effects, the Moving Picture Co.; line producer, Mary Richards; associate producer, Phil Rymer; assistant director, Richard Styles; casting, Karen Lindsay Stewart. Reviewed at Wilshire Screening Room, Beverly Hills, Sept. 22, 2003. (In Mill Valley, London film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

With

Sylvia Plath - Gwyneth Paltrow Ted Hughes - Daniel Craig Al Alvarez - Jared Harris Assia Wevill - Amira Casar David Wevill - Andrew Havill Tom Hadley-Clarke - Sam Troughton Doreen - Lucy Davenport Michael Boddy - Antony Strachan Aurelia Plath - Blythe Danner Professor Thomas - Michael Gambon
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