Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 30th January 2004
Box Office USA: $1.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $10M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Production compaines: Focus Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 37%
Fresh: 48 Rotten: 81
IMDB: 6.3 / 10
Director: Christine Jeffs
An appropriately moody, gray and madly passionate ode to misery-embracing, famously suicidal author and poetess Sylvia Plath, the biographical "Sylvia" nonetheless paints a very incomplete picture of its subject's life. In fact, it doesn't have much to offer anyone who isn't already well versed in Plath lore.
With only a few scattered, out-of-context quotes from her works (the film went ahead despite disapproval and refusals from the Plath estate), the film provides little sense of her emotionally blistering talent, instead relying on the appraisals of peers. "The wealth of imagery," one friend exalts. "Such horrors but expressed with such coolness."
With its awkward sense of time passage, the storytelling sometimes feels like Cliffs Notes. In one comprehensive segment Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) and husband Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) move from England to Boston (where Plath's mom is played by Paltrow's mom, Blythe Danner), then live on the coast for a summer, become frustrated by writer's block, move back to England, become college lecturers, begin struggling with marital problems, and have a baby -- all in 1960. Then suddenly it's two or three years later and she's launching a book of poems ("The Colossus") without even a mention of her revitalized inspiration or a shot of her actually writing.
More significantly, director Christine Jeffs ("Rain") never shows us the roots of the neuroses, paranoia and silent, self-fulfilling misery that inspired the writer's gut-wrenching poetry. She spends a good portion of the first act on the fervent romance of mutual appreciation that brought Plath sublimely together with fellow poet Hughes, but does little to plant the seeds of their declining marriage later on. Hughes grows distant without apparent reason, then eventually fulfills Plath's paranoid fantasies and begins an affair.
Despite an emotionally vague and sometimes mumbling performance by Craig ("Road to Perdition," "Tomb Raider"), who as a catalyst more than a full character hasn't much to work with, the strain between them is soon so palpable it feels like a wedge pushing them to opposite corners of any room they share. Yet the film still tries to depict them as soul mates, with a friend remarking at one point, "You and Ted understand each other in ways most people can only dream of." Uh, they do?
Fortunately, "Sylvia" has an evocative performance by Gwyneth Paltrow to fall back on. From the claw-like tension in her fingers to the coal-like blackness of her heartbroken eyes when she's at rock-bottom -- a look that by itself makes us understand how she could be most inspired when her soul is at it its most haunted -- the actress paints a vivid portrait of Plath's fractured psyche and seems to have an inherent understanding of all the elements of her life that "Sylvia" fails to otherwise depict.
While Jeffs offers up some powerful imagery (in one scene the camera stays eerily steady while Plath and Hughes bob stormily in a rowboat on the ocean as she speaks of her past suicide attempts) and atmosphere that help sweep the movie with Plath's overcast temperament, the film is too literal to excuse its narrative disregard of the facts (rather than feelings) of the author's day-to-day reality.
Plath's children are nothing more than props, and half the time there's no sign of them at all. But surely they would have contributed -- positively or negatively -- to her emotional state, which is, after all, what this movie is about. The publications of Plath's work also garner very little mention. We see that "The Colossus" was a flop, we're told that she's was working on "The Bell Jar" at one point, and a text epilogue states that "Ariel" was published posthumously. Beyond that, "Sylvia" has nothing to say about the literature that justifies this movie's existence. (Even though he was more famous at the time, Hughes' writing is afforded no mention at all.)
This film and Paltrow's depiction of the poet's shaken, disturbed, lonely, angry, jealous fearfulness may provide additional insights for those with an intimate knowledge of Sylvia Plath's aching poetry. For anyone else, it's a waste of time.