"What do you do when your life goes as bad as it can and keeps getting
worse?" poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) asks Al Alvarez (Jared Harris),
a literary critic who was the first to recognize her genius when everyone
else only noticed Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), her husband and fellow poet.
Al offers useless advice about plowing on in life. Falling rapidly into
depression's black hole, Sylvia needs something more than platitudes. Her
husband loves her desperately, but she's toxic to him. Obsessively jealous,
her actions cause what she fears.
"Dying is an art, and I do it exceptionally well," Sylvia brags honestly and
sadly in the film's opening line. Paltrow's heartfelt, Oscar-caliber
performance is stunning in this romantic tragedy.
The superlative SYLVIA is the second film from director Christine Jeffs,
whose last picture was the mesmerizing RAIN. Again Jeffs is masterful at
setting a strong and evocative mood. This period piece takes place mainly
in the early 1960s after Ted and Sylvia have married. (We first meet them
as young lovers in their early days at Cambridge when the mean distance
between their lips stays at about three inches.) The cinematography and set
decoration captures the era without ever being showy. And, when Sylvia's
life begins to fade, cold and dreary snow covers the landscape in the
perfect metaphor for her life's troubles. The music, by Oscar winner
Gabriel Yared (THE ENGLISH PATIENT), is so dramatic and powerful that the
film sometimes becomes more like a great concert with visual scoring rather
than the other way around.
Sylvia's early reviews, when she can get anybody to pay attention, aren't
encouraging. One critic calls her work, "bourgeois and nakedly ambitious."
So bright that she went to England on a Fulbright scholarship, she says that
her troubles actually started at age 9 when her father died, and since then
she has attempted suicide several times. When she tries to transition from
student poet into a working wife, she becomes incredibly unhappy. She is a
prolific cook and a fertile wife -- neither of which give her any
satisfaction -- but she suffers chronic writer's block.
In the film's most ironic line, Sylvia complains, "Why do you humiliate me
so?" to her husband who has done nothing more than speak to the female half
of the couple whom they have asked over for dinner. Sylvia makes such an
ass of herself that everyone else at the table wants nothing more than to
stare at the floor.
You'll be staring too -- staring at a wonderfully gripping film that earns
the strong emotions that it produces in you without ever being manipulative.
SYLVIA runs 1:43. It is rated R for "sexuality/nudity and language" and
would be acceptable for teenagers.
Copyright © 2003 Steve Rhodes