Saturday, January 30, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: biopics / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 5 of 100

If you know even the slightest thing about Sylvia Plath, you'll know how this one ends. In case you don't, a SPOILER ALERT applies for the next couple of paragraphs.

In 1963, after separating from Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath committed suicide. Feminists and Plath supporters spent the next three and half decades laying the blame categorically at Hughes' door. Hughes kept his silence until 1998 when, just before his death, he published 'Birthday Letters', a 200-page collection of poetry examining his relationship with Plath from their initial meeting at Cambridge to the aftermath of her death. Five years after Hughes's passing, director Christine Jeffs made 'Sylvia', from a screenplay by John Brownlow. I would say that a storm of controversy greeted the film's release, except that a teacup would easily have contained said storm; or, to put it another way, the controversy was out of proportion to the amount of people who actually saw the film.

Frieda Hughes, daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, weighed in by denying the filmmakers access to her mother's poetry (there are a couple of brief snippets from 'Lady Lazarus' and 'Daddy' and that's your lot), and excoriated the project in a poem of her own entitled 'My Mother': "Now they want to make a film / For anyone lacking the ability / To imagine the body, head in oven, / Orphaning children". It is worth mentioning that, while the film shows Plath's preparations for the suicide, the act itself occurs offscreen. This negates her assertion that Plath's suicide is the filmmakers' sole motivation.


'Sylvia' is a bloody difficult film to write about. On one hand - as a piece of filmmaking - it strikes a fine balance between the raw emotionalism of Gwyneth Paltrow's central performance and Christine Jeffs' controlled direction (kudos to her for resisting obvious melodrama, judgementalism or proselytizing); it succeeds in evoking a period of time and establishing a sense of place both in its English and American locations; and it truncates the seven years of Plath and Hughes' turbulent relationship into a carefully paced hour and three quarters, the timeline never becoming confused or elliptical. On the other hand, the film never fully gets to grips with Sylvia Plath the writer. And like most artists, Sylvia Plath defined herself by her art.

I've read more than one review which has seized on this shortcoming to write off the film entire. Which is unfair. It's a failing common to almost every film I've seen about writers, either factual ('Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle'), fictitious ('Barton Fink') or somewhere in between ('Shakespeare in Love'): the act of writing is solitary, time-consuming and entirely uncinematic. In fact, the only film I can think of that gets anywhere close to the reality of it is 'Naked Lunch'. There's just something about Peter Berg's typewriter morphing into an anus and talking back to him that communicates David Cronenberg's understanding of the process. But with a rectally-configured Olivetti presumably as unavailable to her as Plath's original poetry, Jeffs uses what she has and structures pivotal scenes around Plath's inability to create, empathetically tapping into her frustration as an idyllic summer at Cape Cod turns into a barren wasteland defined by writer's block.

"I'm dried up," Plath complains at one point, making it sound as much like infertility as a blip in the creative cycle. Things aren't helped by Hughes (Daniel Craig) wandering in from a ramble through the countryside and announcing "Got a poem, a good one," for all the world as if he'd just found it lying there in the woods. Fertility was as important to her worldview as literature (her 1961 poem 'Barren Woman' is a paranoid fantasia on the maternal instinct denied), yet the conflict between motherhood and the howling malevolence of her muse is made brutally plain in the climactic scenes where, estranged from Hughes, she struggles to reconcile her responsibilities to her two young children with the furious onset of ultimately self-destructive inspiration which resulted in the 'Ariel' poems.

Frieda Hughes' refusal of access to Plath's works is both a curse and a blessing. It robs the 'Ariel' sequence: instead of the viewer experiencing the onrush of Plath's most nakedly powerful and imagistic poetry (from the title poem: "Statis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances"; from 'Edge': "The moon has nothing to be sad about / Staring from her hood of bone. / She is used to this sort of thing. / Her blacks cackle and drag"), Jeffs is coralled into presenting a fairly bland montage of Plath scribbling away, her pen chittering across the paper as if part of an experiment into automatic writing, the poet occasionally jerking back from her desk, face contorted in a mask forged equally from the ecstasy of creation and the desperation behind it. Elsewhere, though, Jeffs rises to the challenge, raises her game and gets round the ban on Plath's poetry by transposing certain of Plath's poems (most notably 'The Moon and the Yew Tree' and 'Burning the Letters') into images.

Cinematographer John Toon does sterling work: the glorious seascapes of Cape Cod as captivating and full of light as the dingy rooms of Plath's London flat (her last address) are cramped and heavy with shadows. Gabriel Yared's score is sensitive and seldom intrudes. Jeffs directs with clear-sightedness and compassion; indeed, the film is even-handed in its portrayal of Plath and Hughes' failing marriage. Hughes' infidelity is raked over but not at the cost of demonising him. Jeffs and Brownlow don't shy away, either, from demonstrating that Plath herself wasn't the easiest person to live with.

The performances are what make the film, though. Daniel Craig makes a convincing Hughes, capturing the poet's earthiness, working class background and fierce dedication to his art. Jared Harris achieves a dignified and sympathetic characterisation of influential literary critic and early Plath champion Al Alvarez. Blythe Danner - Gwyneth Paltrow's mother - plays Aurelia Plath, Sylvia's mother, and imbues the role with a crystalline sense of the dispassionate, her few scenes suggesting the outwardly privileged but emotionally unstable childhood from which Sylvia Plath's neuroses developed.

But the defining performance is Paltrow's. I've always liked Gwyneth Paltrow, despite the proliferation of bland movies on her CV and the airy-fairy new-age guff on her Goop website, and I don't think I've ever seen her turn in such powerhouse work as she does in 'Sylvia', notably in an almost unbearable dinner party scene where Plath's slow-burn jealousies and insecurities finally come hissing to the fore. If Joe Pesci's Tommy de Vito in 'Goodfellas' had been a poet not a gangster and done his violence with words instead of guns and fists, the intensity could hardly be more shattering. Paltrow nails Plath's look, voice and mannerisms. In this and a handful of other scenes she also nails Plath's inner demons and the effect is darkly compelling.

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