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.