“Sylvia” is a mediocre film that presents the troubled poet Sylvia Plath as a jealous, possessive and irritating woman. It is hard to recall another biopic which is so unflattering to its subject.
The film traces Plath’s life beginning in 1956, when her studies at Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship brought her into the rising starlight of Ted Hughes, the campus literary talent. As the film presents their story, the couple fell instantly in love and were wed a few months after their first meeting. Yet their professional life was not a marriage of equals, as Hughes commanded a considerably higher level of respect and praise in the academic and literary worlds. Plath was clearly unhappy to be Hughes’ shadow, and her even being the parent to two beautiful children did little to calm her resentment over her lack of fame; instead, she used it as an excuse regarding why her output was so limited. She began to believe Hughes was having affairs with other women and she confronted him with shrill accusations. Eventually he did find passion with a mutual friend of theirs. Plath separated from Hughes, but still could not get him out of her system. Nor could she find the level of success she hungered for. Unable to find peace or professional satisfaction, she killed herself by inhaling the gas from her kitchen stove.
I will admit that I am not an expert on the lives of Plath and Hughes, but I refuse to believe they were as one-dimensional and dull as “Sylvia” makes them. Gywneth Paltrow is the right actress to play Plath and she is able to convey the poet’s rich intellect and inner pain, albeit to a point. The poorly-conceived material ultimately betrays Paltrow and she is eventually limited in her performance to sitting around with a morose expression in dreary rooms while an anvil music score floods the soundtrack. It is a shame she was not allowed to write and direct this film, because it is obvious she understood where Plath was coming from and how to essay her turmoil for the camera. Poor Daniel Craig comes off worse as Hughes. All he does is stand around with a perturbed look, as if he is wondering why he is in the middle of this film.
Plath and Hughes were two of the 20th century’s greatest poets, yet the film never allows us to enjoy their talent. Hughes’ work is never shared and Plath’s poetry is taken out of context in slivers and sprinkled pell-mell throughout the film. We constantly see both of them writing, but we never get a good chance to appreciate what they produced.
One very strange aspect about “Sylvia” is, of all things, Paltrow’s hair. For no clear reason, Paltrow’s hair is constantly changing color and style all through the movie. It is easy to come away from “Sylvia” believing that Sylvia Plath spent most of her time in the beauty parlor.