Sylvia: a Quick Cut to the Heart of a Poet
J. Gordon
11/8/2003 3:55:48 PM

Anyone with a handful of English college classes under their belt probably knows that Sylvia Plath was a tragic American poet who wound up putting her head in the oven. If you know a little more about her, you might add that she was one of the best poets—male or female to come out of America, let alone the English language. But what are the internal workings that make up a poet? A privileged, dysfunctional childhood and a mother who can never be pleased? The loss of a father at a young age? A brilliant, albeit unstable mind united with a philandering husband?

Academy Award winner Gwyneth Paltrow stars in Sylvia as the legendary American author and poet Sylvia Plath, opposite Daniel Craig as British Poet Laureate Edward (Ted) Hughes. Ted and Sylvia were a sensual, volatile and brilliant married couple who emerged as two of the most influential writers of the 20th Century. Sylvia explores the source of creative genius, love, gender differences and madness in this downbeat yet beautiful film.

Anchored by a nakedly emotional lead performance from Gwyneth Paltrow, the film charts the sexually-charged relationship between Plath and fellow poet Ted Hughes, beginning as college lovers in Cambridge and spiraling quickly into infidelity and madness.

Seemingly made for each other, they soon marry. But his work is perceived as more important than her own, and as his star rises and she’s left cleaning house, cooking and raising children while he’s courting coeds and bopping his friend’s wives. When he ultimately deserts her for another woman, it’s just a matter of time before Sylvia goes over the edge.

Paltrow’s real-life mother, Blythe Danner, also stars in the film directed by New Zealand's Christine Jeffs. During filming, the two actors suffered a real-life loss of Paltrow’s father but, as they say, the show must go on. These two professionals have been interviewed saying that the grief, rage and pain felt by their loss was channeled into Sylvia and that reality and emotion no doubt makes it all the more compelling.

Craig is also well-cast as Hughes, and the fact that the original Ted Hughes had a hand in the film’s direction is probably the reason Craig’s role is treated with discretion that could have been upped several notches. Almost all of Hughes’ notorious philandering is done off-camera and, if one knew nothing of the true story, it might be believed that he had only two affairs.

A film that celebrates writing, it would have been made even better if it included more of Plath’s work interspersed in the narration, readings, etc. As I saw her character growing increasingly angry and wild-haired, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, I kept waiting for the inspiration or words to poems such as “Cut” to light the screen:

What a thrill ----
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge

Alas, no such luck. There's obviously too much emotion to plumb when recounting the torturous passion of two great writers, and Sylvia just slices through the surface. Still, it’s a fine and beautiful film, well done, and worth checking out.


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