Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Blythe Danner, and Michael Gambon. Directed by Christine Jeffs, Written by John Brownlow. Rated R, 100 minutes.
“Wallowing in this bloody sty, I cast for fish that pleased my eye (Truly Jehovah's bow suspends No pots of gold to weight its ends); Only the blood-mouthed rainbow trout Rose to my bait. They flopped about My canvas creel until the moth Corrupted its unstable cloth.”
Ah, poetry, words that require no music. Poetry offers words that we can memorize and replay without MP3 technology, downloading, or anything more complex than expression that strikes our soul for pure enjoyment.
The above opening lines are from my favorite poem, The Drunken Fisherman, written not by Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes, but Robert Lowell.
Sylvia is a biopic about poets, an almost forgotten group in our world too rushed to allow for iambic pentameter. This movie evokes the lives and period in which the main characters live with stunning accuracy and effect.
“In our hurried culture, we live as if we will be the first to escape death despite knowing that it is inevitable.”
I confess I have never read Sylvia Plath's published poetry collections or her prose. Her life has been celebrated more in death, a subject that poets and oncologists speak of but that rarely encroaches on polite conversation in our hurried culture. We live as if we will be the first to escape death despite knowing that it is inevitable.
Sylvia Plath's life is celebrated in this movie with an incredibly fine performance in the title role by Gwyneth Paltrow. Sylvia pedals through narrow Cambridge streets with purpose and finds someone hawking literary journal reviews. He clearly wants to avoid her, knowing that she has been reviewed badly, but she needs to see the comments and read the other artist's works and reviews.
Thus she finds the “Black Marauder” of her life on those pages—none other than Ted Hughes, played by Daniel Craig, whose accent is hard to place—is he Irish? Welsh? In life, he was an English Midlander, whose poetry soared and was celebrated until his death in 1998.
As I write this from London, I just walked through a bookstore where his collected poems are prominently still on shelves that do not carry Sylvia's work. Sylvia meets Ted at a party and the two are drawn together into conversation and passion. She famously bites his cheek and draws blood on their first encounter.
The whirlwind romance and the joint growth of their careers with meetings framed by verse and outings where famous lines are delivered to bovine ears along the River Cam capture an image of young love and passion for each other as well as phrases that sing and tower above mere casual mortal students and lugubrious academics.
The idyllic life that comes before the tortuous marriage almost seems too good to be true. Sylvia reveals that despite her brightness and upbeat nature, she has a darker side and a gloomy spirit that led her to attempt suicide at least once before.
Premarital revelations are washed away in swims at the sea, and a couple that drowns in each other's sunny brilliant minds that craft immortal poetry.
Sylvia brings her newly minted husband home after they wed. She comes from a prominent family of culture, and her mother, Aurelia, played by Gwyneth Paltrow's real mother, Blythe Danner in a tight performance, throws a reception for the couple.
Costumed in a cocoa brown dress with polka dots, and surrounded by gardens and interiors that ooze upper middle class, her maternal instincts are pruned finely. Rather than welcoming and gushing about her long-gone daughter, Blythe Danner plays the role with emotional detachment. Similarly, instead of delivering the proper praise for the new husband, she carefully withholds approval.
Sylvia craves approval, requires it for life, and it is obvious here that the wellspring of denying that necessary tonic resides in her mother.
The life of two artists and domesticity may be incompatible or impossible, especially when poetry is not rock music or major league baseball. America seemed to not be the place for our still-happy couple, so they departed to England to find perfection to their unhappiness and misery.
Ted's poetry flowed from him, and he was celebrated ultimately as England's poet laureate. Sylvia toiled with domesticity and her own muse. She is a more prodigious producer of cakes than poems, and seems to have been blocked from the source of her poetry.
She delivered two children, a girl and a boy, but she descended into the depths of depression, perhaps destined to this, but also it seems fueled by postpartum depression.
She published slowly and painfully. The recognition and adulation were not counterbalanced by a healthy marriage, but Ted was a magnet to women.
Within the movie, the polemic of blame is dealt with fairly—neither is portrayed as villainous. Sylvia is depressed and obsessively jealous; Ted is emotionally absent to her and easily seductive and seduced.
Assia Wevill, played by the strangely exotic Amira Casar, accompanies her husband as house guests and provides what Sylvia calls her most favorable review. Sylvia rightly suspects a romantic lustful spark between the two of them, a liaison that leads to Ted's permanent departure.
An attempt at rapprochement fails when Ted admits that Assia is pregnant with his child (He subsequently marries her, and she too commits suicide, contributing to Ted Hughes' legend as an impossible husband).
Sylvia withdraws to her flat and relies on her downstairs neighbor, Professor Thomas, for ordinary comfort. Played by Michael Gambon, he seems to be perpetually home and in his robe, always ready and looking like an unmade bed. The avuncular Gambon always answers the door but is never quite able to deliver what is really needed.
Sylvia prepares for her suicide by making buttered bread and milk for her wee kids, ventilating the window, sealing the doorway to prevent gas from seeping in.
This is the part that those of us who are not sick completely cannot connect with: How can she abandon those little ones and depart life with this critical mission completely untouched?
Suicide is not a rational pursuit, and asking the question assumes that there are explicable, preventable, reasonable issues involved.
Ted Hughes was criticized for destroying her journal to save the children's feelings, when some believe that he was protecting himself. As Sylvia exits this life, the movie provides a surreal, floating tranquil image of her face as she seems finally to have found sweet succor in death that so eluded her in life.
Paltrow and Craig have brought the legends of Sylvia and Ted to life with emotionally appealing characters that could have been stereotypes. I am drawn to read both of their poems and learn more about each of them.
The movie sets the record straight: Depression is an illness, and Sylvia had it in spades. There are those arguing from the feminist angle that Ted Hughes was responsible for her unhappiness and suicide, but this movie does not play the blame game.
It is sensible, well crafted, and divinely written and acted by those sensitive to each character, and the final product is well worth your time.
Regarding Sylvia Plath and Gwyneth Paltrow's performance I am reminded of Robert Frost's Choose Something Like A Star:
''O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud—
It will not do to say of night,
Since dark is what brings out your light.''