Plath, who didn’t get out from under the shadow of her poet husband until she left him late in her career, turned on the gas in the wee hours one morning in the memorably cold winter of 1963 and stuck her head in the oven. Though we don’t see it until the end of the film, no scene lets us forget her impending doom. She is all but introduced as a suicide survivor; one of the first things she tells Hughes (Daniel Craig) after they meet at a Cambridge soiree in the beginning of the film is that she tried to do herself in as a child. The way director Christine Jeffs wants us to see it, the idea of suicide is an inescapable part of her life, hanging around like a bad friend. It’s her muse.
You don’t say.
Depression hangs in the air while countless opportunities to examine the roots of Plath’s discontent go by uninvestigated. Take her children. She doesn’t seem to notice them, and hardly do we, since they are barely more than props that occasionally blink. Her mother (Paltrow’s real mother, Blythe Danner) is creepily charming as only a New England grand dame can be. But her father, who died when she was young and was possibly the foremost inspiration for her touchstone work, “Daddy,” is shuffled on and off the screen with a few garbled lines from the poem and the revelation that he was a beekeeper.
During the marriage, we learn that Plath suffered from a lengthy bout of writer’s block, when Hughes was writing well and the only thing she could produce were delicious cakes. After the publication of her first book of poems, “The Colossus and Other Poems,” we learn that she’s irritated by her husband’s overshadowing fame and later erupts when she suspects he’s unfaithful. But if Plath ever had a discouraging thought that didn’t involve jealously of her Teddy, it’s not here.
In her defense, Jeffs and screenwriter John Brownlow picked a subject that Hughes didn’t even want to address until after he was dead; his posthumously published “Birthday Letters,” a book of poems about his marriage to Plath, appeared in 1998. But simply hinting in the movie that Hughes might be carrying on affairs comes across on the director’s part as fainthearted. And Hughes’ silence on the screen in the face of Plath’s wrath, however true, keeps yet another character one-dimensional. More important, it seems, to Jeffs, is the omnipresent score.
Why is it that so many directors think that the emotion in a film hinges on this clumsy device? In “Sylvia” it even serves as the action in many scenes. The actors, well, they’re just there to model the scenery, while Gabriel Yared’s obtrusive and syrupy music advances the plot. Paltrow and Craig even have sex to it a couple of times, and as the violins gently weep, the question of why we’re witnessing their lovemaking is especially nagging.
“Sylvia” does manage to create some visual poetry of its own. Drenched in the waterlogged colors of mossy England, the feeling is musty with decay. Even the Hughses’ fat years in America seem slightly frayed, and by the time Plath is divorced, scraping by in the tenements of London, we have a good picture of the moth-eaten lot of the poet. The problem Jeffs fails to get her arms around is how to maintain the overwhelming gloom without offering any juicy information to sustain us. By the time Plath has married Hughes and the two take a cottage by the sea, we’re already exhausted. One inevitably overcast day, the couple in their tiny rowboat become perilously adrift in the tide, and the mood has already drifted close to maudlin. Craig’s Hughes, alarmed by the predicament, warns Sylvia, “people drown like this.”
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