There’s a moment about half-way through “Sylvia,” in which Gwyneth Paltrow portrays suicidal poetess Sylvia Plath, when she bursts in on a neighbor (Michael Gambon) in a downstairs flat after the electricity in hers has gone dead. Gambon, playing a dotty professor, suddenly does something totally uncharacteristic for Christine Jeffs’s film: he recites, beautifully I might add, a line that actually gets a laugh. The sense of audience relief is palpable, and welcome, because this bleak, dolorous account of Plath’s unhappy marriage and unhappy end, with its pale, muted colors and overwhelming use of deep shadow, is otherwise an unremitting two-hour dirge, and a surprisingly unenlightening one. “Sylvia” is the story of a tortured genius that gives us plenty of the torture but very little of the genius.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with this elegantly crafted but emotionally pallid film. Maria Djurkovic’s production design, the art direction by John Hill and Jane Cecchi, Philippa Hart’s set decoration and Sandy Powell’s costumes are all exquisitely done, and John Toon’s cinematography captures the ambience Jeffs obviously wants in a very accomplished way. (Whether the picture’s look is the right one remains debatable.) But for all the visual expertise on display, “Sylvia” completely fails to give us a sense of Plath as an artist rather than simply a psychologically distressed woman. To be sure, that may be the result of copyright laws, which apparently limited John Brownlow’s ability to quote his subject’s verse in extenso, limiting him to having her recite brief snatches of lines while the camera lingers on her toiling dutifully at her desk. (Movies have always had trouble depicting writers at work–showing them scribbling away on massive pads and furrowing their brows is a laughable cliche, one resorted to fairly often here.) Brownlow is compelled to resort to the lamest of devices–having a knowledgeable friend of Plath’s (Jared Harris) react to her poems with impassioned descriptions of their content, imagery and power; it’s a though the screenplay had suddenly turned into a recitation from a mediocre book of literary criticism.
Without a real sense of Plath’s artistic accomplishment–or at least nothing more than a declaration of that accomplishment rather than a demonstration of it–the picture becomes the story of a clinically depressed woman who might, frankly, be anyone. And while it definitely manages to communicate that depression to its viewers–one will definitely emerge from the theatre feeling down–it doesn’t succeed in bringing Sylvia Plath to life as an individual.
That doesn’t mean that Paltrow doesn’t impress as the doomed versifier. She gives a performance of considerable versatility, shifting from vulnerable young wife and mother to manic paranoid with almost terrifying abruptness. Brownlow and Jeffs, moreover, do manage to lend a touch of ambiguity to her suspicions about the philandering of husband Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) rather than simply portraying him, as so many do nowadays, as the thoughtless brute who drove Sylvia to suicide; by showing things from her perspective, they suggest that at least some of her early concerns are imagined rather than real. Craig strikes all the right poses as the tweedy, self-promoting Hughes, but even here the film seems to take the easiest tacks: an early scene showing him and his Cambridge mates reciting poems as fast as possible turns the love of literature into a childish game rather than a consequential matter. The rest of the cast is good enough, in a Masterpiece Theatre sort of way, with Blythe Danner making a brief appearance as Plath’s concerned mother. (One wonders, though, why she seems to disappear after throwing the newlyweds a lawn party upon their arrival in America, even during their stay there–not to mention why she never appears to contact her daughter after the couple’s return to England.) Surely the final scenes, in which Plath does away with herself after an attempt to reconnect with Hughes, whom she’d earlier driven away, carry a punch, especially since her two small children are shown sleeping near the kitchen which she fills with noxious gas.
But by the time that “Sylvia” lumbers to its predetermined conclusion, you might look back wistfully toward that single laugh line Gambon had delivered so much earlier.