Sylvia is based on notes released five years ago by the writer's husband British poet Ted Hughes after 30 years of silence (Hughes died of cancer in 1998). They chronicle Sylvia's painful battle with depression frustration over her writing career and jealousy of husband Ted's accomplishments and suspected infidelities. The movie takes up Sylvia's life in 1955 two years after she first attempted suicide; now a seemingly recovered Cambridge student and Fulbright scholar her well-bred all-American beauty and deep intellect attract the notice of aspiring poet Ted Hughes. The two begin a fervent obsessive relationship getting married and having two children while struggling with money and advancing their respective careers. The higher Ted's star rises in the publishing industry however the harder it is for Sylvia to find her voice--losing herself in the shadow of his success she grows increasingly bitter and neurotic about her failures as well as the affairs she believed handsome Ted to be having. Reality or self-fulfilling prophecy? Hard to say but in 1962 Sylvia discovers Ted having a very real affair with their mutual friend so she moves to an apartment in London with the kids. In this tiny flat during one of the coldest winters on record Sylvia Plath begins a frenzied writing period and produces the work that will finally secure her place in the annals of famous women writers: the novel The Bell Jar and the poem Ariel among others. Unfortunately it is in this flat too that Sylvia Plath takes her own life six months later.
In the eponymous role Gwyneth Paltrow (who startlingly resembles Plath) demonstrates a profound empathy with and understanding of the writer who if you're to believe this movie didn't fully understand herself. Essaying a real-life brilliant proto-feminist poet who happens also to be near catatonically depressed is no easy feat but Paltrow takes a deep breath and dives right in delivering an Oscar-caliber performance that may be her best to date. Watch as she almost gaily describes her suicide attempts to an alarmed Ted as their rowboat is being dangerously pulled out to sea or her bizarre and discomfiting reaction during a dinner party as she imagines Ted's lust for another woman at the table. Sylvia seems normal on the outside but Paltrow gives us the barest hint of the demons lurking beneath her polished erudite exterior. As womanizing Ted Hughes a suitably arrogant (and indeed attractive--someone call MGM here's your next Bond) Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) does what he can in a role limited mostly to reacting to Sylvia's idiosyncrasies until she drives him into another woman's arms; you do though get a sense that he loved her deeply and tolerated as much as he could.
Good as Paltrow is she's limited by director Christine Jeffs' (director of the New Zealand indie Rain) one-dimensional characterization of Sylvia that the writer's legacy of multilayered work belies. The love story takes a front seat to Sylvia's writing career and opinions on gender differences and family reducing Sylvia to a weepy morose soul whose overriding concern is where her husband is at all hours. While the beginning of the film gives you some hints as to Sylvia's mental state that plotline falls by the wayside except in terms of the effect her depression had on her feelings about Ted. Despite recurring scenes of her tortured writing there is scarce mention of Sylvia's work (her most well-known The Bell Jar gets fleeting reference) and regrettably very few lines of it are ever heard. By the end Jeffs seems to be veering toward the feminist opinion that Ted and his philandering created the mental state that drove Sylvia to kill herself. The director does a wonderful job though of setting the time and place with dreary grainy shots of rain-soaked 1960s England and a dead-on period look.
Ten-year-old Chihiro (voiced by Daveigh Chase Lilo of Lilo & Stitch) and her parents (voiced by Lauren Holly and Michael Chiklis) are driving to their new home in another town. When they stop along the way at what seems to be an old decrepit amusement park they're intrigued by its strange beauty--and by the wonderful aroma of cooking food from what looks like a deserted stall. They enter to find a spread of delectable delights and the girl's parents dig in. What they don't know however is that this food literally was from the gods set before them as a test. The parents failed and are turned into pigs; aghast Chihiro who never tasted a bite runs away. Like Alice through the looking glass she suddenly finds herself in a phantasmagoric spirit world where she learns she must accomplish a series of dangerous tasks in order to save herself and turn her parents back into people. Along the way she meets an assortment of wild characters who both hurt and help her: an old evil bathhouse owner named Yubaba (voiced by Suzanne Pleshette) her henchman Haku (voiced by Jason Marsden) who can transform himself into a wolfish serpent a ratlike cat a kimono-wearing frog and sootballs. Yep sootballs--and they're cute too.
The actors providing voices ultimately take a back seat to their own characters as the film's animation is the true star (in fact the film was dubbed into an American version no doubt to lure in those who can't both read and watch) and the dialogue is awfully trite. Unlike most American animated films this one has no clear good-vs.-evil message; in fact even our small heroine has her faults which is the reason why she's being tested. She never finds herself up against one single evil force either. The menagerie of characters she encounters are often good and not so good at the same time. In the end it's up to Chihiro to find and nurture the best in herself to get out of her predicament.
Spirited Away certainly doesn't suffer from American animation's tendancy to beat you over the head with the message; the plot here is decidedly less linear and somewhat harder to follow. The story often wanders with seemingly illogical elements to the narrative. The shape-shifting creatures might be a little too imaginative for traditional audiences to get their heads around--it's like watching someone else's drug trip. In the end though it's no wonder Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away has become the highest-grossing film in Japanese history won the prestigious Golden Bear Award at this year's Berlin Film Festival and took home the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture.