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Review of "Sylvia"

By Christine Jeffs (Director)
Universal, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 30th 2004
Sylvia

Sylvia tells the story of the marriage and death of the famous confessional poet Sylvia Plath. Its characterization of Plath is straightforward: she is emotionally fragile, passionate, jealous, bitter, and torn between her desire to be a poet and a good wife and mother. Her husband, Ted Hughes, is arrogant and, largely thanks to her help, successful. When they first met, he with another woman, but he willingly kissed Plath anyway. As his reputation grows and he teaches at an American college, he gathers young female admirers, and Plath looks on feeling threatened. Later in their marriage, back in England, when they have two children, Hughes has an affair and eventually moves out, and this precipitates Plath's final depression and a period of intense creativity during which she wrote her best-known poems.

Made in association with BBC Films and the UK Film Council, Sylvia mainly sticks to the documented facts of the poets' lives in broad outline and sticks to the familiar formula of biographical films, with 1950s costuming and sets, an unobtrusive orchestral score, and tasteful depictions of the couple's initial sexual encounters. Gwyneth Paltrow's portrayal of Plath is powerful, but makes her an unattractive figure. Paltrow speaks in a tight, angry voice for the whole film, sounding quite like Plath on the recordings of her reading her poetry. As their marriage starts to decay, Paltrow does her best to capture the emotional anguish Plath experienced, and the film features prominent use of violins to heighten the sense of desperation, but this crucial part of the film lacks conviction.

The shorthand of film requires that many aspects of these poets' lives are left out. The film gives no sense of just how eccentric Ted Hughes was, with his beliefs in astrology, numerology, and magic, and his poetry in which wild animals and the excesses of nature are worshipped. The film also gives very little sense of Plath's community with other poets, her time in workshops with poets such as Ann Sexton, and her relationship with her mother. Those who have read one or more biographies of Plath are bound to be frustrated with the selective way the film deals with her life, but that is in the nature of film. Hopefully, those who see the film and want to learn more about Plath and especially the last seven years of her life will be inspired to read one of her biographies.

Maybe the biggest dramatic license the film takes is with her suicide. Ted Hughes visits her and she approaches him, kissing him. They end up making love and after, lie on a couch in each other's arms, and Sylvia says that they can put the whole terrible fast months behind them. But Hughes then delivers her death sentence by saying that won't be possible, because now his lover is pregnant. This shatters Plath's final hopes, and she resolves on her own death in the next scene. This may be a plausible speculation as to what happened, but there is no evidence those events actually took place. It's an interpretation that fits well with the stance taken by many feminists after Plath's death, and that led to outrage that Hughes as her husband had complete control over her literary works and profited from the subsequent massive success of The Bell Jar and Ariel. It is tempting to speculate whether the director Christine Jeffs and screenwriter John Brownlow chose this ending because it fit with their convictions or whether it happened to deliver the biggest emotional punch. Unfortunately, there is no director's commentary on the DVD so we are left none the wiser.

Ultimately, Sylvia is a worthy rendering of one of the twentieth century's most important poets, but it doesn't provide any new insights and the constricted and bleak tone of the film make it a work most viewers would be unwilling to sit through more than once.

 

2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

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Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.

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