Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 02, 2003 2:59 pm 
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A fair, emotionally resonant portrait

In judging a film about a famous person we have to look at the facts of the life. But those who trash “Sylvia” as another inadequate biopic that blurs the facts aren’t seeing how good it is. It doesn’t tell all, but it implies most of what’s true. The film is simple in narrative content but complex emotionally. It begins on the very day when the American Plath meets her English poet husband-to-be Ted Hughes, and it ends just a few years later with her death by suicide. They marry quickly, leave England for Massachusetts where he has a teaching job and she comes from, then return to England and live in London for a while. They rent their flat to what turns out to be another pair of poets, and move to a cottage in Devon. She has two children and bakes pies and cakes and can’t write.

Hughes (Daniel Craig) is a well-built, sexy man with a deep, resonant Richard Burton voice. He is a well-known seducer. Sylvia suspects him of adultery with the lady poet who rented their flat, and she’s right. A horrible dinner when the London couple comes to Devon to visit and Sylvia stages one long scene highlights this. Sylvia’s jealousy and near madness also come out repeatedly in her destructions of Ted’s manuscripts and photos. (An omitted detail I’ve learned of: he too destroyed one of her journals and a whole autobiographical book.) Maybe his philandering or his poetic success overwhelm her ability to write or maybe she simply needs to be alone with her innate pain and her death wish in order to let out the great poetry that is in her. They split up, she becomes wildly productive for a short period, and then, after attempting an affair with A. Alvarez, her admirer and Ted’s friend, and a reconciliation with Ted – both gestures unsuccessful – she commits suicide at 32, gassing herself but saving her two little kids by taping-off the door to their bedroom.

From her first appearance Gyneth Paltrow is radiant but fragile. Her slim blonde beauty allows her to convey a combination of thin skin and emptiness. Paltrow’s performance is a revelation. Clearly she was good, but who knew she had such dark depths of hurt and anger in her? The simple trajectory of the film allows her to exhibit a wide range of emotions with subtlety.The pared down quality of “Sylvia,” its lack of exposition and its fine acting allow the emotions to resonate.

Ted Hughes (everyone agrees) gets a balanced portrait: he undermines Plath, yet tries to be supportive. Was choosing a celebrated poet as a husband a wise decision for fledgling poet Sylvia? But wait: Hughes married two suicidal women poets (and I’ve learned that the second one took her young child with her, a few years after the marriage to Hughes): he had a big problem himself with choices there. Hughes and Plath both have that brilliant, doomed quality of a lot of Fifties artists (and artist couples).

After seeing “Sylvia” I’ve learned from reviews that Ted Hughes, her husband, was more famous and successful than she was at first, but after her death she became the more famous one. Throughout his long life after Plath’s suicide Hughes was accused of causing it. Ridiculous on the face of it: she was bent on self slaughter from an early age. And by the way, the brief sequence of Blythe Danner as Plath’s mother isn’t needed to show this as some suggest, because Plath tells Hughes about her serious suicide attempt as a girl earlier. Danner’s appearance simply sketches in Plath’s family dysfunctionalities, which it does quite deftly.

There are flaws. An absence of long passages of Plath’s poetry (due to restrictions by her estate) isn’t one of them as some Plath-fan reviewers argue. How much would be enough? This isn’t a documentary. There’s plenty of poetry – notably a poetry-reciting contest with Hughes’ friends on an early date that shows how deep they are into the stuff, and Sylvia reciting the Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales in a rowboat. But her kids are just props and you don’t see her relations to them or understand how she justified abandoning them in death. The specific details of Hughes’ adultery are left too vague. All the couple’s places of residence are painted with the same dark brush – shabby furniture, the same dark gray walls, and a large landscape painting amid the interesting abstractions that is mostly black. The music is clunkily manipulative Forties-style stuff. Hughes could have been made more interesting and specific and indeed so might Plath.

But there are also redeeming grace notes. There are times when the scenes and the people have a wonderfully accurate Fifties look. Jared Harris as Alvarez is a strong, touching presence. Michael Gambon as a neighbor whom Plath appeals to repeatedly for help makes a tiny role memorable without a touch of scene stealing. Above all there’s Paltrow’s seamless immersion in the Plath persona, her beauty become plain Fifties prettiness, her face sad yet brave, her suffering matter-of-fact, never stagy or pushed. It’s true: this is one of the year’s most compelling performances. Director Christine Jeffs has done a fine job.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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