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Sylvia (October 23/03)

Sylvia Plath is probably more relevant today than ever before, what with her book, The Bell Jar, acting as a bible of sorts for goth culture. Plath was undoubtedly a fascinating woman, but you'd never know it from watching this film - which portrays her as a bitter and jealous housewife.

When we first meet Plath (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), it's 1956 and she's attending a British college on a scholarship. It's there that she meets Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), a budding and brooding poet who finds himself immediately attracted to Plath. The two begin a relationship, and soon they're married with a baby on the way. But Plath finds herself frustrated by Hughes' easy success, as she's toiled away for years on her own poetry.

The ironic thing about Sylvia is that its subject is a woman who was exceedingly jaded and cynical, and yet the filmmakers have taken a Douglas Sirk approach to the material. Director Christine Jeffs admittedly employs a lush visual look, making superb use of the widescreen frame and imbuing virtually every shot with a striking sense of style, but the script (by John Brownlow) plays up the melodrama to such an extent that it's almost laughable at times. And Jeffs doesn't employ any restraint, throwing in an over-the-top score and countless close-ups of Paltrow's teary-eyed visage. The movie occasionally feels as though it could be a made-for-PBS production; chances are never taken with the material, which is certainly odd given the kind of off-kilter woman Plath was.

And for all the emphasis on Plath's private life, by the time the movie ends, we don't really feel as though we know what made her tick. The film never really takes us inside her head; we're always wondering what she's thinking about, and what fuels her bizarre paranoid delusions. She's constantly accusing her husband of having an affair, but it's never made entirely clear why Plath feels so insecure in her relationship with Hughes. It'd be easy enough to accept the film's refusal to deal with Plath's mistrustful nature if more time had been devoted to her work as a writer, but even that aspect of her life is given the short shrift.

If nothing else, though, the movie offers up yet another fantastic lead performance from Paltrow. She does an excellent job of portraying Plath's confusion and paranoia, without ever turning her into a caricature (which must have been quite a challenge). Craig is just as good as Hughes, which isn't terribly surprising given how effective he's been in recent films like Road to Perdition and the upcoming The Mother. Solid supporting turns from Blythe Danner (Platrow's real-life mother) as Plath's mom and Jared Harris as a friend of the couple ensure that the movie never becomes a total bore.

Sylvia might appeal to an older audience, those weened on the cheesy melodramas of the '50s, and who prefer docudramas that lack bite. But really, Plath deserved better.

out of

© David Nusair