2003, R, 110 min. Directed by Christine Jeffs. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Amira Casar, Andrew Havill, Sam Troughton, Lucy Davenport, Antony Strachan, Blythe Danner, Michael Gambon.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 31, 2003
The life and death of Sylvia Plath and her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes have provided longtime fodder for the imaginations of speculative literati types, close-text-reading academics, and eager feminists. Plath’s death by suicide in 1963 and the posthumous U.S. release of her poetry collection Ariel and novel The Bell Jar brought Plath the kind of fame she never truly experienced in her lifetime, and also dovetailed nicely with the rise of the modern women’s movement, which was only too happy to clasp Plath to its bosom as a fallen martyr. That her unfaithful ex Hughes became the tight-fisted literary executor of her estate (and poet laureate of England) provided a thorn in everyone’s side for another 35 years, until he published the Plath-inspired Birthday Letters a few months before his own death. The public’s festering curiosity of the last 40 years, however, is not about to be slaked by this new biopic. Granted, making an engaging movie about a depressive poet is a tough assignment. Writers rarely convey a captivating presence on screen, their work so solitary, quiet, and action-free. So it was probably a wise move that this movie chose to focus on Plath’s tumultuous relationship with Hughes, providing at least the familiar underpinnings of romantic drama for this sad story of a writer who ends her life at the age of 30 with her head in an oven and her children sleeping in the next room. Paltrow is very good as Plath, creating both a strong physical and verbal likeness of the poet. (Going an even further mile in the mother-daughter likeness department, Paltrow’s own mother Blythe Danner is cast as Plath’s mother Aurelia.) But Craig’s Hughes is an ill-developed presence, and he and Paltrow share zero chemistry. The oft-repeated story of their first meeting – in which Plath bites Hughes on the cheek and draws blood – is re-created, but little of what follows carries the same kind of zest. Mostly, the movie focuses on Sylvia’s sudden inability to write once she is married, her devoted promotion of Hughes’ career, her growing suspicion of his infidelity (which turns out to be true), and her return to writing once she’s tossed the cad out. Even though she is writing again, her anguish over the death of her marriage seems to be her primary obsession. The movie is all Paltrow’s show, although Gambon’s appearance as her mystified landlord reasserts a human touch toward the end. Exactly why Plath's desire to kill herself remained so unwavering throughout her short life will not be answered by this movie. We see none of life before Hughes, so it’s hard to say precisely how unbalanced she was before they met, although we know from her writings that her turmoil had been lifelong. But Sylvia also makes it seem as though, even at her happiest, she never received much pleasure from life. This makes for a long, slow procession to the oven door – so dark, somber, and lifeless is this well-intentioned biography.