Sylvia is a bit of a tease. A personal portrait of Plath is hinted at by intimately introducing one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated poets, on a first name basis. Yet, director Christine Jeffs doesn’t deliver all the goods. Instead, she leaves analytical speculation to the spectators, while concentrating on the more visceral development of Plath’s personality. Perhaps this is just as well. The essence of Sylvia Plath’s short, troubled life is shrouded in mystery, yet still offers enough surface drama to satisfy Hollywood. Sylvia, therefore, steers straight ahead, faithfully following the time line of her turbulent life with a minimum of carry on baggage.
Gwyneth Paltrow gives authenticity to the role of Sylvia with her all-American blue blood good looks, which are strikingly similar to Plath’s. Her intelligent and perceptive performance is sure to gather some serious mantel decor.
Daniel Craig’s haggard appearance and Yorkshire growl give him some of Ted Hughes’s renowned sexual magnetism and brooding charisma. Although, his attempts to be as carnal as the hawk and crow, symbolically found prowling throughout Hughes’s poetry, are sometimes thwarted by resembling a wounded puppy.
The movie begins in the Technicolor days of 1956 at Cambridge University, where the American Plath, 23, is on a Fulbright Fellowship scholarship. Things quickly heat up with the legendarily lusty introduction of Plath and Hughes.
Their instant attraction at a party is consumed with a kiss; she bites his cheek, drawing blood; and he pockets her earrings like trophies. Shakespearean quotes and poetry jams ensue in the bowels of shabby student dorms until inevitably, verse becomes aphrodisiac and they tumble into bed. The literary lovebirds promptly marry and take a summer sojourn by the sea, although, the vacation becomes a forewarning of the stormy times ahead.
Hughes polishes off gems of prose, while Plath bakes cakes and tackles writer’s block. Her mental fragility also seeps through during an eerie scene out at sea; while he rows aimlessly in cobalt swells, she casually recounts her previous suicide attempts. Their creative asymmetry continues after the birth of their two children in 1960 and 1962, as her role of wife and mother overtakes that of writer. Plath’s growing professional envy and sexual jealousy are feverishly fed by her insecurities. In a pivotal dinner party scene, her paranoia of Hughes’s possible infidelities finally comes to a boiling point, when she (rightly) accuses him of having an affair with their married friend, Assia Wevill (played by Amira Casar).
Their consequent separation, during the harsh winter of 1963, liberated in Plath an explosion of productivity and in Paltrow, the chance to showcase her dramatic talent. She does a fair job portraying the mad urgency of inspiration without any dialogue to guide her, but the films plot starts to melt away within the blurry confines of her solitude. Fortunately, the lush shots and moody palettes of cinematographer John Toon effectively express her hauntingly dark descent into delirium during the final scenes.
At the ripe old age of thirty, Plath left a tray of milk and buttered bread next to her sleeping children, taped up their door and stuck her head in the oven. She wrote in Lady Lazarus, “Dying is an art, I do it exceptionally well.” Sylvia’s polite portrayal of Plath’s life is faithful, but it doesn’t reflect the raw power she exuded in person or in prose.