Gwyneth Paltrow as poet Sylvia Plath in Sylvia (courtesy photo)

Poet Sylvia Plath is portrayed in a time when it still seemed possible to be so besotted with poetry

Even before they finished shooting Sylvia, Frieda Hughes, the daughter of poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, was firing her own fusillade in print at the project. "They think I should give them my mother's words/To fill the mouth of their monster/Their Sylvia Suicide Doll," she wrote in "My Mother," a poem that appeared in the British magazine Tatler. As executor of her late parents' estates, she refused to grant permission to use their words beyond what is sanctioned under "fair use" rules.

As if to validate the daughter's fears, Sylvia begins with a brief excerpt from "Lady Lazarus," one of Plath's most famous poems. "Dying is an art like everything else," a languid, recumbent Plath (Paltrow) murmurs, in a lugubrious tone that misses the poet's mischievous wit. "I do it exceptionally well." What director Christine Jeeks does exceptionally well is capture the textures of the years 1956-1963, a time when it still seemed possible to be so besotted with poetry, including one's own, that trading lines could seem like making love, and lead to it.

When Sylvia meets Ted (Craig), at a party in Cambridge, England, they immediately rhyme. Marriage and two children follow, as do the rivalries, resentments, and recriminations of a two-poet household in which Ted is the more successful author and Sylvia feels enslaved to domesticity. When Ted walks out - and into another woman's arms - Sylvia is liberated. "I really feel like God's speaking through me," she tells critic Al Alvarez (Harris), in the midst of an extraordinary burst of literary creativity during the four months before her suicide, at 30. Yet she also confesses to weariness with life. "All I want," she says, "is blackness - blackness and silence."


Dir. Christine Jeffs; writ. John Brownlow; feat. Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Michael Gambon, Amira Casar, Blythe Danner (R)
Frieda Hughes could not silence screenwriter John Brownlow, whose next project is a film about another poet well known for dying young, Christopher Marlowe, any more than she could silence Kate Moses, whose recent novel, Wintering, fictionalizes Sylvia Plath, or the many biographers drawn, like flies to lion carcasses, to the remains of Plath and Hughes. Trying to draw the lives of poets without recourse to their poetry, Jeffs has her characters spout copious swatches of Shakespeare, Kipling, Yeats, and others. In the film's most exuberant scene, while punting down the River Cam with Ted, Sylvia bellows out Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" to the cows grazing by the shore. But the film, unlike the comedienne of self-destruction who is its subject, is short on humor.

Sylvia - which presents hypothesis as history, notably in a final meeting between Sylvia and Ted that cannot be verified - will not please those who think all biography is effrontery, nor will it likely please partisans of either Plath or Hughes. Sylvia Plath has indeed become a "Suicide Doll," and it is very difficult not to see her early death as both inevitable and as a commentary on her life and her art. Just as any film about Vincent van Gogh must lead up to a scene of severing the ear, audiences are from the opening frame of Sylvia prepared for her encounter with the kitchen gas. But in a cosmic cinematic joke that Plath herself might have devised, the camera turns away. •

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