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
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
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
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
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
~~ Jules Brenner