out of Five
Running time: 108
Watchable, well-acted biopic that unfortunately never really digs deep enough to be truly satisfying.
Sylvia is the second feature by New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs (Rain). It stars Gwyneth Paltrow (using an American accent for a change) as poet and novelist Sylvia Plath and Daniel Craig (The Mother) as British poet Ted Hughes.
The film details their torturous seven year marriage, from their initial meeting at Cambridge in the 1950s to the onset of the emotional and mental stress that would eventually lead to her death, by suicide, at the age of 30, just one month after the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from the same problems that seem to befall most BritLit flicks (see also Iris), in that it doesn't really go in deep enough. Indeed, if you didn't know anything about Sylvia Plath and you saw this film you might wonder what on earth she was so upset about. So her husband allegedly (they cunningly avoid committing themselves on this one) cheated on her and she had trouble coping with being a mother while trying to write? Well, boo bloody hoo, etc.
That said, Paltrow is excellent as Sylvia, bringing exactly the right mix of vulnerability and frustration to the role. Craig is equally good, although there's only really chemistry between them in their first meeting scene and it evaporates shortly afterwards.
The film is also hampered by not being able to secure the rights to any of Hughes' poems and only a select few of Sylvia's - one scene cuts into her reading the final line ("Daddy, Daddy, you bastard” etc) to Jared Harris - which is very frustrating because it robs the audience of a satisfactory ‘moment of creative genius’ scene (the staple scene to all biopics, no matter how clichéd).
Superb Supporting Cast
The supporting cast are superb. Blythe Danner (Paltrow’s real-life mother – a sublime bit of Stunt Casting) is great in her few scenes as Sylvia's mother, Aurelia, and Jared Harris (as Plath’s friend and critic) is practically unrecognisable without his Comedy Russian Accent. Michael Gambon also crops up in a small, but sympathetic role as her downstairs neighbour.
Opinions on Hughes’ culpability in Sylvia’s mental decline range wildly and the film admirably refuses to come down on any one side. Perversely, the best scenes are the ones where they hint at Hughes' infidelities: a student giving Sylvia a guilty glance and running away; Hughes and a female friend doing the washing-up together, with Sylvia watching them through a patterned glass window. Even the one scene of actual infidelity that we see is framed as a possible fantasy in Sylvia's mind.
To sum up, Sylvia is well-acted with one or two great scenes, but it’s a little bit dull as biopics go and it doesn’t really shed any new light on its subject.