Program Notes: Sylvia (2003)

“Dying is an art like everything else,” announces poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow).

“I do it exceptionally well.”

If you’re talking about notoriety, Plath was right. Even people who have never read one of her poems can tell you that she committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven.

Knowing before it starts how Sylvia will end is just one of the hurdles this movie has to clear. The others:

In the 45 years since her death Plath has emerged as Saint Sylvia, the patroness of sad wan white girls. Depicting a saint is always tricky lest the faithful take offense.

How should the film portray Plath’s husband, Brit poet (and later poet laureate) Ted Hughes (played here by Daniel Craig)? Some feminists embrace the always-blame-the-man theory, maintaining that Hughes’ philandering drove Plath to suicide.

Film Screening:
Sylvia (2003)
Monday, Nov. 12 at 6:30 p.m.
Central Library

Finally, there is the little roadblock constructed by Plath’s survivors. They denied the filmmakers the right to use any of her work. Thus we get a poetry-free movie about a poet.

It’s no surprise, then, that Sylvia falls short of being the final word on its subject. Still, the film has some fine moments, particularly a brave performance by Paltrow and a big dose of manly charisma from Craig as Hughes.

Director Christine Jeffs brings a fine autumnal feel to the proceedings, and Gabriel Yared’s score suggests Ralph Vaughan Williams at his most melancholy.

John Brownlow’s screenplay concentrates on the Plath-Hughes relationship. It begins in the late ’50s when the American Plath met Hughes at a university in Britain. It’s lust at first sight. Both are handsome, talented, and fiercely intelligent — their favorite party game involves alternating swigs of liquor with recitations of Shakespeare and Chaucer from memory. (It’s classier than Truth or Dare played over a beer bong.)

Early on Sylvia matter-of-factly reveals her history of suicide attempts and her continuing hang-ups over the death of her father. Hughes is unfazed. They travel to America to get the blessings of Plath’s mother, a nice, brittle turn by Paltrow’s real-life mom, Blythe Danner.

The couple move to Cape Cod and Sylvia puts her own writing on the back burner so she can be the ideal housewife (the film’s only running joke involves her prodigious baking output). It’s on the Cape she first suspects that hubby is messing around with the adoring students in his poetry seminars. The film never tells us whether the suspicions are true.

Returning to England, Sylvia experiences more frequent bouts of depression and anger. The couple flee London for life in the country, but jealousy, suspicion, and hysteria follow.

To make matters worse, Sylvia finds herself tied down with two small children while Hughes gallivants around London on business, his career always moving forward.

Eventually they split, and Sylvia begins her final downward spiral, producing in her last months the poems that would be her legacy.

Paltrow’s depiction of Sylvia’s growing madness is harrowing. She is a woman who loves so fiercely she cannot control it. Craig makes an indelible impression with his piercing intellect, compact body, and fighter’s squished nose (he reminds of the young Jean-Paul Belmondo). Michael Gambon and Jared Harris give nice supporting turns.

But the film never overcomes its biggest handicap: Poets express their inner state through their poetry. In the end, this film has been denied Sylvia’s voice.

Other films in the series “The Man Who Would Be Bond”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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