Film Reviews

SYLVIA

By • Oct 17th, 2003 •

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A Focus Features presentation in association with BBC Films, Capitol Films and U.K. Film Council of a Ruby Films production
Running time — 110 minutes / MPAA rating: R

American poet Sylvia Plath was suicidally obsessed with celebrated British poet Ted Hughes. Having already attempted suicide twice, Plath’s marriage was marred by her jealousies and catatonic depression. After two children and a separation, she succeeded in committing suicide. Hughes was already involved with a woman, Assia Wevill, who, according to the movie, was invited into the Hughes home with her poet husband by Plath. Wevill was pregnant with Hughes’s child at the time of Plath’s suicide. Hughes edited and published Plath’s poems after her death and she became a cultural icon. The movie ends on this note.

Hughes’s relationship with the thrice-married Wevill lasted six years. Wevill also committed suicide. Wevill killed their daughter with sleeping pills and then turned on the gas oven. Hughes was reviled for a time as the source of Plath’s anguish. Plath’s admirers would shout “murderer” at Hughes’s poetry readings. However, in 1977 he was awarded with an OBE and in 1984 he was appointed Poet Laureate. Some writers have called Hughes England’s greatest poet of the last century.

What kind of man causes two women he has children with to kill themselves? Wevill was so angry with Hughes she killed their six year-old daughter Shura before gassing herself.
Why did Hughes destroy the final volume of Plath’s journal chronicling their last three years together? What happened to one of Plath’s diaries that mysteriously went missing? What did Hughes suppress? What happened between them that initiated Plath’s suicide?

Sadly, and curiously, Ted Hughes is an enigma in SYLVIA.

Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) meets Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) at a party while attending college in Cambridge, England. She bites him on the cheek drawing blood. Hughes is already a famous poet adored by legions of female fans. Plath is girlish and shy about her talent. Her poems are rejected yet Hughes encourages her. While she mentions her two previous suicide attempts, there is no indication that she is terribly haunted and should be under medical supervision. They marry and live in a very bleak, cold and dreary place, Devon. Plath begins to suspect Hughes is cheating on her. She becomes obsessed with jealousy, first imaged, then real. By now they have two small children.

Sylvia invites Assia Wevill (Amira Casar) and her poet husband to Devon. Wevill and Hughes begin an affair. Sylvia moves to London and starts writing. Her book, “The Bell Jar” is published but her attempt at reconciling with Hughes fails. At age 30, alone except for her two small children, she kills herself.

A full analysis of the Plath/Hughes marriage has been plowed over by scholars, Plath sympathizers, Hughes’s detractors, biographers, and Plath and Hughes themselves. Except for the protagonist himself, most commentators place blame squarely on Hughes.

Yet, according to SYLVIA, Plath was her own enemy, driving Hughes to infidelity with her obsessive jealousy and tortured history. Why was Plath suicidal? Why did her mother Aurelia Plath (Blythe Danner) merely counsel Hughes to be kind to her daughter? Why didn’t she come to her daughter’s aid? Why did Hughes leave a very troubled woman alone with his small children?

This is a very emotional, complicated role for Paltrow. At first flighty and carefree, as soon as Plath marries Hughes she becomes unhinged. The screenplay by John Brownlow is oblivious to Hughes’s sadistic effect on Plath. Brownlow and director Christine Jeffs downplay Hughes influence over Plath’s sanity. To the filmmakers, Hughes is the injured party. Yes, Hughes began an affair, but Plath all but threw Wevill at him. Plath sucked all the oxygen out of their lives. Hughes was not interested in his young students. He was not fooling around.

If I had not done any research on Hughes I would be sympathetic to his ordeal. Daniel Craig does not play Hughes as a womanizer or even a flirt (although there is now alleged an unacknowledged fourth child.) He is just overwhelmed by Plath. While former mistresses have painted Hughes in a very harsh light, here he is helpful, loving, and supportive of Plath. Craig reveals nothing about Hughes’s character except his utter befuddlement with Plath. Yes, the movie is called SYLVIA, but the real fascinating story of these two high-strung and competitive poets is whitewashed.

Jeffs and Brownlow sidestep the real Hughes and the general public not familiar with “England’s greatest poet of the last century” will see a man simply unable to cope with a suicidal wife. However, in the context of the story they were interested in showcasing, Jeffs creates a startling canvas.

The dank, bitter cold environment painted by Jeffs brings a foreboding quality to Plath’s and Hughes’s lives. I was fascinated by their lives and how Jeffs was able to release in Paltrow such a tortured performance.


Credits:
Director: Christine Jeffs
Screenwriter: John Brownlow
Producer: Alison Owen
Executive producers: David M. Thompson, Tracey Scoffield, Robert Jones, Jane Barclay, Sharon Harel
Director of photography: John Toon
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Editor: Tariq Anwar
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Music: Gabriel Yared

Cast:
Sylvia Plath: Gwyneth Paltrow
Ted Hughes: Daniel Craig
Al Alvarez: Jared Harris
Aurelia Plath: Blythe Danner
Professor Thomas: Michael Gambon
Assia Wevill: Amira Casar

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