Poet Sylvia Plath is least famous for her poetry, somewhat more famous for having written the novel The Bell Jar, and most famous for having committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. Plath was young, beautiful and gifted, while ill-suited for her era’s assigned role as minor lady poet and dedicated homemaker. The romantic view of Plath’s suicide sees it as emblematic, a darkly appealing free-will gesture made in the face of society’s opposition to her true nature. The judgmental view sees it as an appallingly selfish act committed while her two young children slept in the room next door.
This could be very dreary stuff if it weren’t for Gwyneth Paltrow, who is pitch perfect as Plath, deftly capturing the troubled golden girl’s mercurial moods in the new biopic, Sylvia. Paltrow has been decent before but never this deep. It’s a soulful performance and one watches warily at first, patiently waiting for the false move that never comes, and then with increasing admiration.
Paltrow had a large role to fill. Plath was clinically depressed during a time when such things were only dimly understood. Her suicide was foreshadowed by several failed attempts, as well as manic-depressive mood swings and growing paranoia. When considering the plight of someone in the grip of such an overwhelming illness, social considerations and personal motivations become secondary.
In Sylvia, the filmmakers take a non-judgmental, non-romantic approach, thereby saving the story from becoming merely a revel for Plath fans. Instead, the film illustrates the universal aspect of the tragedy. Anyone could end up on Plath’s path.
The story begins in 1955 when the young poetess, studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, first meets her husband-to-be, the poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). The initial romance is hot and heavy but the ensuing marriage is troubled, partly because Hughes’ poetic career quickly outstrips hers and partly because she begins to suspect that her charismatic husband is having affairs with some of his many admirers.
The movie then goes into a scenes-from-a-marriage mode, all recriminations and rapprochements. Sylvia behaves badly toward innocent acquaintances, almost has a retaliatory affair with a literary friend (a nice turn by Jared Harris), and generally alienates enough people to allow herself plenty of room to sink into a dark and bottomless self-regard. Due to her obvious illness, she could’ve ended up there even if her marriage had been ideal and her career monumental.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].