Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Movie Review: Sylvia (2003)

A film by Christine Jeffs

"Sylvia" is a film about the life of the American poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow). The film begins with Plath in college and being all upset about the review of her poetry in a magazine (it might have been a university magazine, but that is never made clear). Soon after she is told about another young poet named Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). They meet and fall in lust, and despite the title of the movie being "Sylvia" the movie quickly becomes about Sylvia and Ted. Perhaps this is my greatest problem with "Sylvia", that we don't see Sylvia Plath as her own woman. Instead we see Sylvia Plath only in relation to Ted Hughes. I do not know too much about the life of Plath, but since her journals were posthumously published, and she is the author of "The Bell Jar", "Ariel" and won the Pulitzer Prize (also posthumously) for her collected poetry, surely she was a strong enough personality to actually be the subject of a movie which is supposedly about her. But, perhaps I'm wrong about that.

This is a depressing movie. Sylvia Plath was fairly depressive in her own life, and "Sylvia" gets this right. She is manic and unstable and emotionally beat down by Ted Hughes. Her marriage of ups and downs is mostly downs and apparently she is never able to find her focus in writing, though she does manage to publish a couple of books of poetry. She is still overshadowed by her more successful husband. At this point, I think "I" want to stick my head in an oven. It feels like Plath gets yanked around from place to place and is her own emotional rollercoaster and gets no emotional support from her husband who ends up cheating on her anyway.

We never really get to see Sylvia writing her poetry, or speaking her poetry, or using any of her intellectual talents other than in one early scene which sets up the lust between Plath and Hughes. The reason for this is probably because Sylvia Plath's daughter would not permit the filmmakers to use any of her mother's poetry, which meant that only whatever could be legally used outside of that permission was used. This left us with only a couple of brief lines of poetry from a very famous poet. This unquestionably harms the movie because we have no sense in why Plath is famous and remembered. All we have is what we see and hear in the movie and that is a depressed poet who doesn't write is having an unhappy life. Let me see "that" movie!

The problem is not the casting. Gwyneth Paltrow does an excellent job in portraying Sylvia Plath and she even looks remarkably like the pictures I have seen of Sylvia Plath. Daniel Craig does a fine job of Ted Hughes, though I have no sense of comparison. The problem is that this is a very dreary movie and it gives us no reason to care for these characters, especially the heroine. "Sylvia" is dull, it is boring. This was a good role for Gwyneth Paltrow to play, but she would have been better served in a different movie about Sylvia Plath. Grade: C-

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