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What is it about an artist dying young - particularly if it is at his
or her own hands - that strikes such a deep chord in so many of us? Is
it the fact that this rare and special person achieves a kind of
mastery of fate at the last moment, a perfect conclusion to this messy
business of life that we mere mortals can never hope to attain? Could
it be that this early death is just one more instance of an artist
taking the elements of raw reality and transforming them into something
stylized, transcendent and meaningful for the rest of us to brood over
and contemplate? When poet and novelist Sylvia Plath committed suicide
in 1963, she became the archetype of the tortured artist - particularly
for sensitive young people who came to romanticize her end and her
suffering in ways that lifted her and her work to iconic status.
The biopic, entitled simply 'Sylvia,' gets the 'tortured' part pretty much right, but has considerably less success with the 'artist.'
The film focuses mainly on the tumultuous relationship between Plath and her husband of eight years, famed poet Ted Hughes. The story begins in 1956 with their love-at-first-sight meeting when they were both students at Cambridge University. The film moves quickly through the years, showing how, after a short period of relative marital bliss, Ted's philandering began to take its toll on the relationship. As portrayed in the movie, Sylvia, despite her notable talent, is a mass of neuroses and insecurities, always toiling in the shadows of her (initially at least) much more well known and commercially successful husband. But her feelings of inadequacy and jealousy over Ted's infidelities cannot, in and of themselves, entirely account for her paranoia, her outbursts of anger and her suicidal tendencies. Those resulted mainly from the clinical depression that tormented the woman from the time of her father's death early in her childhood to her own tragic end. The movie sidesteps the electroshock therapy Plath underwent at various times in her life (though it very subtly hints at them), yet the film still manages to convey just how great a victim she was of this disease she could not overcome.
Thanks to John Brownlow's rather singlemindedly depressing screenplay, there's a tremendous feeling of sadness hovering over the film. Director Christine Jeffs brings a raw intensity to many of the confrontation scenes involving the pain-wracked, benighted couple. As Sylvia and Ted, Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig give rich, moving and sensitive performances, and Michael Gambon leaves his mark as a sympathetic neighbor who tries but does not succeed at saving Sylvia.
If there is a flaw in 'Sylvia,' it is one common to films that attempt to portray the lives of artists, particularly writers. Although a scenarist can dramatize the details of an artist's life, it is virtually impossible for him to capture the richness and power of the art itself in the different medium of film. We never get the sense of how Sylvia either overcomes the difficulties of her life to succeed in her writing or how she uses those difficulties to enhance her art. What we do get is a few shots of Sylvia sitting in front of a typewriter, a comment or two about a book that has been or is soon to be published, a few references to critical reviews, and a smattering of voice-over recitations of Plath's poetry. What we don't get and what it is virtually impossible for film to capture is the essence of the writing itself. For this, one needs to return to the source material, the works that have lived on after the woman herself all these years. If the movie inspires new people to explore Sylvia Plath's writing, it will not have been in vain
I am pretty familiar with Plath's story, and am also a keen fan of her work,
which i think contributed to my hesitancy in seeing the film. I did not
have high hopes for this film at all, and honestly, I have to say that I was
My main criticisms:
I found it hard to get past the whole 'Oooh look it's Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath'. Someone who isn't famous on a global scale would have been more credible.
The whole premise of the film hinges on the deep passionate relationship of Plath and Hughes, yet I never really felt convinced by it. The relationship came across as quite two dimensional, and even pretty one sided on the part of Paltrow/Plath. Instead of being portrayed as an emotionally fragile woman driven to the edge by Hughes' constant philandering and ultimate betrayal, Plath actually seemed to come across as being deeply insecure and neurotic, constantly suffering from extreme PMT, and overreacting every time she saw Hughes even talking to another woman, rather than having genuine reason to suspect his infidelity.
There were a couple of key dramatic moments (such as after they have made love for the first time, and when they are out in the boat together) that felt very hammy, so disrupted the momentum of the piece.
The score is just awful. Totally totally overwrought, over the top, too loud and too much of it. Plus, as Paltrow/Plath really starts to lose her mind there is an almost constant sound of howling wind in the backgroud. Again, OTT. Less definitely would have been more.
Ok, I complained about Paltrow above, but she really did a great job. She really is a very talented actress, and it is a shame the whole celebrity thing gets in the way. She was particularly fine in the latter stages of the film, and the sad descent into loneliness and irreversible depression was very well judged.
Likewise, Daniel Craig was very enigmatic, although I wonder whether the one sidedness of the relationship as mentioned above may have come from him.
As a whole the film was very sympathetic, and showed how hard it must have been for Hughes to live with Plath. It doesn't justify his behaviour but rather tries to show an understanding. It also evokes a sense of a time when poets were considered important.
This film stayed with me for some days after watching it, and I would recommend it. It is somewhat uneven in pace and direction, but I think Christine Jeffs is a director with talent, although her inexperience showed. But above all, it renewed my interest in both Plath and Hughes.
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.
When I rented this movie, I thought it would be about Sylvia's entire
life, or at least starting from her days at Smith College. I didn't
realize that her marriage with Ted Hughes would be the entire
storyline. I think this movie would've been better had they shown more
about Plath's life BEFORE Ted Hughes. For people who don't really know
much about Plath and her poetry, understanding her life before Hughes
would've made the film much more substantial. The audience has to
realize that Plath led a very, very hard mental life even before she
met Hughes, and her ideas for her poetry and 'The Bell Jar' mostly
originated from her bachelorette days. She never recovered from her
depression as a young woman and it branched out still as she married
Hughes. Without understanding Plath from the beginning hinders the
audience from understanding Plath at all.
I feel like the movie only told half the story. Plath's mind was beautiful, colorful, and brilliant. It wasn't just about the jealousy, depression, and paranoia. Putting her works on the back burner really took away most of this movie. I would've liked to see more narration by Plath and giving us an insight into her mind, the way her unabridged journals do. However, I really enjoyed the dialogue of this movie; the lines were poetic and beautiful.
Unfortunately, I am still waiting for a better Sylvia Plath movie. I recommend people to read 'The Bell Jar' and 'Ariel' before or after seeing this movie though.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After being forewarned by the teenager selling tickets to "Sylvia"--"I
you like 'depressing', 'cause this is REALLY depressing" ("Oh, I do, I
I reassured him)--I spent the next 2 hours completely alone in the
which was somehow appropriate...
Paltrow was competent, Daniel Craig as Ted was appropriately brooding and charismatic. That said, I found the film to be little more than a series of mainly gloomy vignettes rather than a more accurately energetic glimpse into her actual life.
From everything I've read about Plath (all of her works, plus over 10 critical and/or biographical books), the woman was a crackling force of both manic and depressive energy--this film, on the other hand, almost completely ignores the manic life (and death) force in favor of a pervasive listlessness. Even the scenes that we know from Plath's journals happened in real-life are dulled-down here: Plath's bang-smash account of her sexually-charged initial meeting with Hughes, for instance, which we know resulted in tooth-marks on Hughes' face and his snatching her hair-band, is rendered as little more than a fairly polite dance and kiss in the movie--you get little sense of the urgency and excitement of their attraction. Another scene, rendered far more cinematically in Plath's journals and in Hughes' poem "Chaucer", is her enchantment of the local cows with her recitation of The Wife of Bath's Tale---in reality, the cows apparently gathered around her as she spoke, entranced by her voice, and Ted had to literally drive them away. When I read THEIR accounts, I could feel the magic of the odd situation; in the movie, though, Plath speaks a few lines to watching cows as she and Ted row past them on the river. Ho-hum.
While the two lived in Boston, Plath not only taught at Smith, but later entered weekly analysis, worked at a local mental hospital because Ted wouldn't get a job, and hung out with fellow poets at Lowell's weekly workshop, then got drunk with Anne Sexton, for one, afterwards. Again, that's all pretty darn cinematic; but in the movie, the Boston life consists primarily of a few seconds of Plath droning on before a class or two, then a scene of women gathering around Hughes after a reading. Yes, they do have a fight after Sylvia asks Ted if he f***ed (the movie's word) one woman; but her own written account of the scene was rather wild, with thrown glasses, her "getting hit" and seeing stars, etc., rather than the bland conversational incarnation of the incident that shows up here.
In London and Devon, too: In actuality, up 'til near the end, Plath was constantly in motion: setting up households, sending their work out, going to literary events, having babies, entertaining a myriad of friends and family and neighbors. Dido Merwin and Olwyn Hughes have both left testaments to Sylvia's sometime-hostility on occasion; Plath's own friends have left warmer accounts. Whatever the case, she was interacting with others, for better and worse, and much more interestingly than in this movie, wherein she mainly mopes around the house in a series of grim solitary poses. (PLEASE, I feel like begging, show her getting mad at Olwyn for smoking, or angrily striding out onto the moors after an argument at Ted's family's house, or yelling at Ted about the damn rabbit traps or his Ouija-predicted fame, or expressing her frustration at her mother's annoying visit. ANYTHING to portray an interesting, REAL person and to relieve the monotony of all the pseudo-artsy posing that goes on in the film.)
In short, this movie sucks every bit of life out of Plath, portraying her as a zombie-like character almost from the get-go, when in fact we know from reading her own words that there was actually a thinking, feeling, LIVING person on the premises up until the very end.
What makes poetry a special art form? Answers might include bringing
together extremes of joy and despair within a couple of lines, offering an
alternative to rational thought, enriching our outlook and understanding in
ways that prose would struggle to equal. Poetry can provide a single phrase
or sentence that is easily remembered and somehow unlocks
difficult-to-express inner states, just as a song can (and poetry is the
basis of songs). It offers a freedom of expression where you don't need to
explain every aspect of what you are saying - it urges the listener to grasp
a semi-spoken truth or idea.
That's my rough guess. I've got over 40 books of poetry on my bookshelf at the last count, yet I'm no literary expert and appreciate poetry in a very simple way. Most people might agree that poetry offers something special, so a film celebrating the life of a famous poet might be expected to bring us a glimmer of that something.
Sylvia Plath has been championed not only as a poet but as a sort of feminist' a cry on behalf of women treated as a commodity, subjugated by an unfair male-dominated system. Cast in the lead role, Gwyneth Paltrow's Plath focuses much attention on how downtrodden she was, chained to two children, overshadowed by a brilliant and celebrated Ted Hughes, struggling with bitterness, jealousy, mental instability and a less than attractive persona. We also get the occasional poetic outburst, from who-can-recite-poetry-fastest undergrad shenanigans to romanticised performances of Chaucer (addressed to an audience of watching cows whilst floating downstream in a boat). All punctuated with soft-focus shots of a naked Plath/Paltrow, hysterical and often violent outbursts at Hughes, and scenes of a generally uninteresting and uninspiring life of moderate wretchedness. The only thing that distinguishes Sylvia from the now-unfashionable kitchen sink drama is that its central character is called Sylvia Plath.
So is the film worthy of the title? In A Beautiful Mind, we learnt of the joy of mathematics, Lunzhin Defence championed the addictive mysteries of chess, and Dead Poets Society made us lift our eyes to literary horizons that could inspire the dullest of minds. Sylvia was limited, perhaps, by the refusal of her daughter to allow much of Plath's poetry to be used in the film but, for whatever reason, it has failed to be more than a rather humdrum biopic. It offers little insight into her poetry or the magic of poetry generally, and adds little of interest about the historical figure that doesn't apply to millions of women. If any deep philosophical statement can be drawn from this, the film certainly doesn't make it, poetically or otherwise. Sadly, it would seem that the words of Sylvia Plath's daughter almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy: "Now they want to make a film . .. They think I should give them my mother's words . . . To fill the mouth of their monster . . . Their Sylvia Suicide Doll." Whilst not quite an empty doll, Sylvia is maybe an arm or leg short of a manikin.
Rather dull and uninspired biography, even though Gwyneth does a good performance, she's unable to save a biography which probably will make your own life look exciting - Sylvia Plath is portrayed as not much more than a quite ordinary housewife that is cheated on over several years. The affairs of her husband Ted takes its toll, of course, and quite predictably drives her paranoia, but really; this is not film material. Ted Hughes comes across as a lame, rather brutal husband with little understanding of Sylvias troubled mind. Their story is told very straightforward and linear, probably wrong since there is very little story to begin with. A more adventurous structure, with glimpses of childhood, early years, etc might have added much needed lyricism to this lackluster project.
So intense ... Ms. Paltrow does not let your eye leave her from the moment she enters the frame... moment by moment she projects her feelings thoughts... almost painful to watch at times... you almost feel like you are watching Paltrow herself unravel on screen (boat on the ocean. I love Plath and I love Paltrow as Plath... she is heartbreaking and haunting just like the poetry the real Sylvia wrote. She unlike most actresses becomes a character and she became Sylvia Plath.
"Sylvia" is not quite just a slow, straightforward bio-pic of poet Sylvia
Plath. While screenwriter John Brownlow has a long background in TV
documentaries, director Christine Jeffs has previously made a young woman's
mental disquiet dreamily visual in the superb New Zealand film "Rain."
She has her "Rain" cinematographer John Toon bathe the entire film in a nostalgia-tinged amber glow, like the extended flashbacks to the young lovers in the Australian film "Innocence." I think the point is to determinedly place Plath and her husband poet Ted Hughes into their specific time at the cusp before "The Feminine Mystique" put a name to Plath's frustrations and contradictions as a Fulbright scholar - experimental poet turned wife and mother who ultimately turned on herself. ("Mona Lisa's Smile" with Julia Roberts will evidently be dealing with a parallel time and place in a much more Hollywood interpretation.)
As played alternatively languid and aggressive by Gwyneth Paltrow and a Byronic Daniel Craig, they are an actively sensual couple, but notably not Bohemian. They are part of an intellectual but not counter-cultural set. While they are competing for editors' accolades and print space, she's setting her hair, arranging her pearls and cleaning house, like a proper Smith graduate of the time who is perfectly at home visiting her Boston mother (played by real-life mom Blythe Danner) and amidst the books of her late bee scholar father (My friend the PhD in English tells me that the original film title of "The Bee-Keeper's Daughter" would have been fraught with much more significance about Plath's obsessions.)
Hughes celebrates his first big break by asking her to marry him and kids follow one after the other; when they need money he looks to write a children's series for the BBC. Yes, she gets more and more difficult and paranoid, but he is having affairs (and another child) as he attracts more fawning women acolytes.
An earlier suicide effort is referenced a couple of times yet her increasingly heightened mental imbalance as shown here could be post-partum depressions or a Laingian response that insanity is the only rational response to an insane, unfair world. (The film does not seem to side with her loyalist cult which Margaret Atwood satirizes in "The Blind Assassin").
It is always difficult to show a writer at work, but I would have liked to hear more of her poetry than a few passing sentences.
Gabriel Yared's music is lovely and unsentimental.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I feared that "Sylvia" would be (in Plath's terms) a potboiler. It
showed signs at the beginning that it was going to be the story of
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in the style of "the Bold and the
Beautiful". In the first scene Sylvia is a blonde with a curled
pageboy. Her mother's house looks like a mansion, complete with a
library and uniformed waiters arranging flowers on buffet tables.
But the film didn't continue in that style, which is a bit of a shame, since if it had it would have been highly entertaining. The beach scenes were stunningly shot and they showed effectively the beginnings of Sylvia's difficulties in finding a voice as a writer. Unfortunately the script jumps immediately from Sylvia baking cakes because she is blocked creatively to suspecting her husband is jumping her students.
The Hughes/Plath controversy is fueled by biographies which are sympathetic to either party, portraying Plath as a bunny boiler who accuses Hughes of humping around until he leaves, or Plath as a victim of a marauder who suppresses her poetry and mentally tortures her, especially by bedding every admirer who throws herself at him. The script of "Sylvia" appears to be written by someone who is in the "poor Ted, what he had to put up with" camp, but I'm not entirely certain. Hughes in the early British scenes is brilliant at reciting poetry and delighting Sylvia by suggesting that cows prefer Chaucer over Milton. Once the couple are in the States Hughes' personality empties to riling her mother's friends and leaving Sylvia on her own for hours, presumed humping around. After they move to England, Hughes becomes hollow. He's a cardboard figure who people like the critic at the party envy and women supposedly go gaga over but we never see this. Is the audience meant to believe it was all in Plath's mind until she told Hughes to leave? For the most part the film suggests the history described in the many biographies. I don't think that people who are unfamiliar with the biographies would understand that Sylvia in her rages tears up Hughes' notes for his writing projects as well as his books. According to many accounts, she burnt the manuscript of her novel Falcon Yard in a bonfire she started in Devon after Hughes left: the scene in the film shows her burning papers but doesn't indicate what she is burning.
"Sylvia" made me groan by turning the last hour into slush that distorts the events of the end of Plath's life. She met her downstairs neighbor only once, the night before she committed suicide. He was the last person to see her alive. She did ask for stamps and he did open the door again to find her in the hallway. However, the scenes in which she asks for his help in the power cut and later when she breaks down at his door are invention. Plath and Hughes met on occasions after their marriage broke down and she moved to London with the children, but there is no evidence that she asked him if they could get back together. Alvarez described in a memoir that she read her work to him and he gave her feedback about some of her most famous poems. The scene I found most insulting to Plath is the one in which the fictional Sylvia blurts out to the Alvarez character that she is thinking of taking a lover. On Christmas Eve 1962 Plath invited Alvarez to her apartment for a drink and she wore her hair down. Alvarez felt her loneliness; however, any needs she might have had were unspoken. It's true that Alvarez had also tried to commit suicide: but the dialogue in the scene in which his character lectures her about death is largely unconvincing as well as apocryphal.
"Sylvia" is uncertain about which audience it wants to appeal to: the students who are assigned Plath in high school and college, sympathizers with Hughes, the Biography Channel, or audiences who want a four handkerchief love story. Ultimately it doesn't succeed as a portrait of Plath: it glosses over the difficulties she had as a writer and her achievement in writing the Ariel poems. It has only one scene with Sylvia's mother, although the relationship Plath had with her mother was instrumental throughout her life. I doubt that anyone will come away from the film with any idea of Hughes' work, his achievements as a poet (he became the British Poet Laureate) , or what happened to him after Plath died (a few years afterward Assia Wevill killed herself and the daughter she had with Hughes). It isn't a melodrama but it skims over Sylvia's struggles with depression. It certainly doesn't help the movie that the script doesn't give more than a sample line of some of Plath's poems. I heard that the producers were legally prevented from using longer excerpts from Plath's work, but they could have featured more poetry than a few quotes from Chaucer and Yeats' "The Sorrow of Love". It doesn't go into enough depth for a love story or for Scenes From a Marriage, Times Literary Supplement style.
"Sylvia" is the airplane movie of Plath's life. It flies over the major events, and I think it would be best enjoyed on a plane when there's no other entertainment on offer. That said, I thought the set and costume design was outstanding aside from the maternal mansion. The student housing of 1950s Britain and the limited budget that Sylvia and Ted had as a married couple are deftly depicted. The details of their apartments and their house in the early 1960s are brilliantly captured, down to the instructions in the red phone booth and the telephone that Sylvia pulls from the wall. It's a pity that the movie doesn't explore the details of Plath's life as tellingly as it does her surroundings, and the cakes she bakes.
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