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Volume 69, Issue 47, Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Arts & Entertainment

'Sylvia' a sweet slice of poet's life

Sylvia: Director fulfills unenviable task of bringing life to poems

by John Seaborn Gray
The Daily Cougar

First, there was The Hours, an award-winning movie about the poet Virginia Woolf, who committed suicide after a bittersweet relationship with her husband.

Now, there is Sylvia, a movie about a poet who committed suicide after a bittersweet relationship with her husband. Sometimes a new market gets created and filmmakers jump on topics with similar themes. If there ever was a recurring theme in life, it's that of the self-destructive artist.

Does that mean this movie isn't any good? Nope. It happens to be quite good. But for those of you expecting to find echoes of The Hours, don't. You will find
them in tone and execution. 

Gwyneth Paltrow gives such a stirring performance as the heart-broken Sylvia Plath that audiences with grieve with her character by the filmis end.
Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Enjoy the movie as the true story of poet Sylvia Plath and her poet husband Ted Hughes.

Several things are impressive about this movie, and foremost among those are the performances by the leading actors, Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig as Sylvia and Ted, respectively. The film lets us enjoy the characters before it introduces us to their gaping flaws -- and they do develop some. 

Sylvia is fragile and paranoid, and Ted becomes increasingly callous and distant. But Hughes is not portrayed as the heartless monster he might have been -- the movie makes it clear that developing some kind of emotional armor was really the only way to live with Sylvia.

However, it leads him into some bad places, which provides the story with its central conflict. In the poetry community, debate has raged for decades about the relationship between Hughes and Plath. Did they really love each other? Was it an abusive relationship? Was Ted a bastard? Was Sylvia a kook?

The screenplay by John Brownlow answers these questions, presenting Plath and Hughes not as literary icons, but as human beings that love each other yet hurt each other as well. Brownlow has taken Plath's poetry -- much of which was about Hughes -- and balanced it with Hughes' own Birthday Letters, his lone account of his years with Plath, finally published five years ago as he lay dying. The result is a story filled with heartache and emotions that ring true.

Is it depressing? You bet. But there is also a sly humor to a few of the scenes to lighten the mood, particularly at the world's most awkward dinner party.

Don't expect things to get too jovial, though. Plath is fully aware of her impending doom, hovering just out of the corner of her vision. Paltrow carries this weight palpably, and the audience will ache for her.

Director Christine Jeffs has filled the movie with beautiful, stark imagery that conjures up a Plath poem or three -- you'll find the inspirations for certain poems in the crying of an infant, a hallway light, a boat out at sea and other places. Jeffs gives us insight into the nature of Plath's existence. It is a rare thing indeed to be able to show the world through someone else's eyes, yet Jeffs does an admirable job.

Will this movie win Oscars by the truckload and make an indelible mark on film for years to come? No. Nor does it have as much universal appeal as one might wish. But for poets and fans of Sylvia Plath, it is a faithful labor of love.


Rated: R

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig

Focus Features

The verdict: The authentic and moving Sylvia is a well-done bio-drama.

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