In 1956, aspiring American poet Sylvia Plath meets fellow poet Edward Ted Hughes at Cambridge, where she is studying. Enthralled with the genius of his writing, Sylvia falls in love with him even before meeting him, and he quickly falls in love with her. They eventually marry. Sylvia quickly learns that others are also enthralled with her husband, for a combination of his good looks, charisma, fame and success. Sylvia lives in her husband's professional shadow as she tries to eke out her own writing career, which doesn't come as naturally to her as it does to Ted. She also suspects him of chronic infidelity. Both issues affect Sylvia's already fragile emotional state, she who once tried to commit suicide earlier in her life. Through her pain and her anger, she does gain minor success as a writer, with a completed semi-autobiographical novel and a few well received collection of poems. Following, she tries to regain some happiness in her life with Ted, but has an alternate plan if that... Written by
The first film in which real-life mother and daughter Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow play mother and daughter (Aurelia and Sylvia Plath) respectively. Danner and Paltrow previously starred together in Cruel Doubt (1992), but not as mother and daughter. See more »
The film begins with the time that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met, and the trees are shown in autumn colors with falling leaves. However, Sylvia and Ted met in late winter, February of 1956, when the trees would have been bare. See more »
Sometimes I dream the tree, and the tree is my life. One branch is the man I shall marry, and the leaves my children. Another branch is my future as a writer, and each leaf is a poem. Another branch is a good academic career. But as I sit there trying to choose, the leaves bring to turn brown and blow away, until the tree is absolutely bare.
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Film biographies of cultural figures - art, music, literature - differ from those focused on great events and the men and women who either led others or contributed to the hallmarks of history. For a start, figures in the arts have nowhere near the broad drawing power of, say, a General Patton whose controversial larger than life war record is placed in a setting where there are many other important figures, all engaged in very documented and perennially debated actions.
In 1998, "Hilary and Jackie" explored alleged episodes in the short life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her pianist, now also conductor, husband, Daniel Barenboim. Despite very very good acting the film was largely a descent into the basement of scurrilous storytelling by relatives of the dead musician. Whatever the truth of the claim that she bedded her sister's husband, the movie said nothing about the couple's meteorically brilliant early careers. It was slanted voyeurism writ large.
Director Christine Wells has taken a very different and insightful tack in exploring the life of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, a poet with laurels garnered while Ms. Plath was still starting up a not very steady ladder to recognition.
Plath, an American, met Hughes in England. A short courtship was followed by marriage and then two children. The relationship was tumultuous and eventually it foundered because of Sylvia's underlying emotional instability followed by her husband's desertion to another woman.
Sylvia had tried suicide at least once before meeting Hughes and she succeeded in 1963, not that many years after they met. Whatever fame she achieved in her life has been eclipsed by what can only be described as a cottage industry of people studying her relationship with Hughes, an activity more important to some than her very fine poems and her most famous book, a novel, "The Bell Jar." In short, the real Sylvia Plath, whoever she was, has been hijacked.
Wells takes a sympathetic view of Ted and Sylvia, not joining in the political debate over feminism and Sylvia's supposed maltreatment by Ted. Sylvia in this film is brilliant but also terribly brittle and her inner demons are not caused by a brutish or callous husband. As Platrow portrays her, I believe accurately, Sylvia was seriously and chronically depressed with life events worsening but in no regard initiating a downward spiral. Today she would probably thrive and be both prolific as a poet and happy as a person if successfully maintained on an effective anti-depressant.
Ted, played by Daniel Craig, is a bit transparent - loving but somewhat distanced by his own quest for fame. He hectors Sylvia to write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse while on a seaside vacation. He's supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help, not critical comments about non-productivity.
The supporting cast is fine but this is Paltrow and Craig's film. She has a strong affinity for England and its culture (I believe she has moved there) and she gives the role deep conviction and understanding. It happens that she somewhat resembles Sylvia but the true recognition is internal and intellectual. And emotional, let's not omit that.
Hughes essentially inherited his wife's estate and there's no question that he, like Daniel Barenboim after Jacqueline Du Pre's death, received a mixed blessing. He superintended the posthumous publication of "Ariel," one of Sylvia's most enduring legacies. A man who only wanted to be a first-rate poet, he became (and still is post mortem) the subject of arguments as to his treatment of Sylvia and his responsibility for her taking her life.
"Sylvia" sets the record straight as Paltrow acts the part of a woman - mother as well as poet - who slowly loses control of her life while her husband reacts first with confusion and later with the self-protective armor of withdrawal.
Hughes went on to publish many fine poems and he became poet laureate of England, a post he definitely wanted and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).
Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia or a last record - and chance - to give his side, it's an impressive work. And "Ariel's Gift" by Erica Wagner is must reading for those who want more than a film and sometimes potted articles can provide. It analyzes the poets' relationship through the prism of Hughes's writings, most unpublished before "Birthday Letters." A recent book, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by Diane Middlebrook, is also recommended.
Incidentally, the film accurately shows Sylvia's suicide preparations which included putting breakfast next to her little kids' beds before opening their window wide and sealing their door so the gas she employed to dispatch herself wouldn't harm them. I've read articles where her adulators remark on this as evidence of her loving and solicitous nature. Rubbish. The gas supplied at that time would have blown the whole building sky high if anyone, through ringing a doorbell or smoking a cigarette, had introduced a spark into her flat. Anyone surviving such a suicide attempt under those facts would surely be prosecuted today.
The film score is very intrusive, signaling when important things are happening. The dialogue and Paltrow and Craig's faces do that very well.
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