I must admit to mixed feelings on Sylvia, a film about the American poet Sylvia Plath. There’s not much of Path’s poetry included and no poems from her husband Ted Hughes. I understand that their daughter, the poet and painter Frieda Hughes, refused permission. She felt the producers were “voyeuristically raking over the ashes of her mother’s death.” What poetry is quoted includes: “Dying is an art … I do it exceptionally well …” from Ariel, which was read in voice over (as were any other bits of poetry) more than once. This perhaps speaks to Frieda Hughes’ concerns.
The producer (BBC) and director (Christine Jeffs) chose to focus on Plath’s clinical depression, her tumultuous relationship with Hughes, and her suicide.The sense of Plath as a poet is background to all that. One could argue that it should have been the other way around.
Gwyneth Paltrow plays Plath and while she does bare some resemblance to Plath, she is rather wooden. If you’ve listened to recordings of Plath’s interviews, you know she was animated. Lively. A smoldering and sauterne Ted Hughes was played by Daniel Craig. Blyth Danner (Paltrow’s real-life mom) plays Plath’s stern, knowing and concerned mother, not a big part but well done.
I think what’s redeeming is that the interplay between Plath and Hughes illustrates the extraordinary challenge presented to their marriage by the depth and persistence of her depression. Neither excusing nor judging Hughes for his adultery, the film gives a nod to his pain and the fact of his love despite all.
After Plath’s death, Hughes was vilified as someone tantamount to a murderer. He often still is even after the publication of Birthday Letters, which gives his side of the story.
“Nor did I know I was being auditioned
For the male lead in your drama,
Miming through the first easy movements
As if with eyes closed, feeling for the role.
As if a puppet were being tried on its strings,
Or a dead frog’s legs touched by electrodes.”
Plath was deeply wounded by her father’s death when she was eight and saw in Hughes a replacement. The situation couldn’t have been easy for the man. And, after all, Plath’s depression predates her relationship with Hughes, as did her first attempt at suicide.
If I was using stars to rate Sylvia, I’d give it two out of five, mainly because it perpetuates the mythology that surrounds Plath over her poetry, which I find intrusive and ultimately disrespectful. If you’re a Plath fan and haven’t seen the movie, you might want to just because of your affinity for the poet and her poetry … and, of course, you might like it more than I do. If you have no particular affinity for Plath or know little about her, you might appreciate it as the story of a depressive.