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Her Husband:
Hughes and Plath,
Portrait of a Marriage

The Bell Jar: A Novel by Sylvia Plath

. "Sylvia"

Sylvia Plath was an influential enough poet and novelist to have become the subject of books analyzing her life, work, and career. Amazon.com lists no less than 163 by or about her. Feeding this interest, of course, is her untimely death, a suicide at age 30. Both from the point of intellectual curiosity as well as from scandal-seeking, her marriage to an already acclaimed poet, Ted Hughes, who will become Britains' poet laureate, is grist for the gossip mill and commercializing her (and this film's) appeal. One popular thesis is that her tragedy was caused by pressures brought to bear upon her by Hughes' philandering and bad marriage manners. But a condemnation of him this is not, particularly as the scenario is based on Hughes' own work, "Birthday Letter."

As rendered in this biopic, Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) is little more than the usual straying husband, but the effect his choices have on his mentally delicate wife Sylvia Plath (earnestly dedicated Gwyneth Paltrow) bring her too close to the edge she's approached before. She's thought of suicide as a solution to emotional sufferomg when she was nine, following the death of her father.

But before that morsel gets out, the account starts by suggesting how Plath and Hughes meet on campus, she the Cambridge Fulbright scholar striving to get her poetry published; he the recognized talent and handsome genius whose poetry she adores. At first opportunity, she makes a move on him and they discover an immediate sexual attraction. After collegial discourse and considerable intercourse, they marry and come to America where his reputation as a poet grows into a career. Sylvia accepts a teaching position and struggles with her writing, but with some good pieces making their way out of her typewriter.

The early part of the marriage is one of bliss and mutual understanding between artists on the level of creativity. It, perhaps, takes a poet to best appreciate the work and mindset of another, and that seems a contributing factor to the early essentials of the relationship. But, as time goes on, absences seem extended and Plath is overcome with nearly debilitating paranoia when she sees young female students swarming her husband with adulation.

If there was no basis for her suspicions before, her new frame of mind could drive any man away from the arms of his apparent soul mate and we see him having the affair that he's been accused of. To preserve the marriage, the couple returns to England and starts a family, leading to a productive period as to babies and poetry. She gets a book of poetry published, followed by other works.

When Ted strays again, the marriage is finished, leaving Sylvia to sink into the dark torment of instability and bringing despair and pain into her work. After writing her novel, "The Bell Jar", which was published, and "Ariel", her best-known work of poetry, she tragically ended her life. "Ariel" was published posthumously.

Paltrow, a wonderfully gifted actress, takes us into the particular details of a creative mind with a mortal flaw. The performance is wrenching and uncomfortable, but as emotionally driven as it is, there remains a distance. This is not anyone I can relate to. Unless you're an artist with an abiding pain and a tendency toward finality as a satisfactory means to end it, you're not likely to get drawn in.

Paltrow's portrayal managed to make me feel chilled and discomforted by the anguish of her subject, but as an observer -- not a viscerally involved participant. I don't relate to anyone who can even consider suicide as a solution and the idea of so gifted a person as Plath brings me to grieve her weakness instead of celebrating her creative strength.

Hughes is rendered by director Christine Jeffs and writer John Brownlow with even greater detachment, perhaps to reserve the necessary focus on the dramatic side of the match. This natural course for the screenplay resulted in changing the original title, "Ted and Sylvia" to the necessarily abbreviated and more succinct one it went with.

The film can boast an appropriately deep and foreboding look under the direction of cinematographer John Toon. Tech credits and supporting cast (with the notable Michael Gambon a special treat) are tops.

The tenor of this biography can't help but bring to mind the similarly tragic life and death of another literary suicide, that of Virginia Woolf, intensely portrayed by Nicole Kidman in "The Hours." The Plath story might have been inspired by the success of the earlier work but it is no more truly enlightening or gripping. As a movie about a psychologically impaired life, the term "soap opera" comes to mind.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath
A tormented genius

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