No disrespect intended, but you may never be happier to see a writer carted out of her home feet-first than you will with “Sylvia.”
That moment signals the end is mercifully at hand to this dreary film biography that offers little insight into the character of suicidal poet Sylvia Plath.
“Sylvia,” with Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, presents a woman so unswervingly bound for death by her own hand that her terrible journey ends up feeling monotonous and her actual suicide anti-climatic.
When she’s not trying to kill herself, Paltrow’s Plath talks about doing the deed, recounting past failed attempts at suicide and spouting such cheery lines as, “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.”
No one expects a trip to Disney World in a biopic about Plath. But there has to be more to the woman than the relentless gloom and single-minded devotion to self-annihilation presented by director Christine Jeffs.
Only early on, with Plath’s whirlwind romance and marriage in 1956 to future British poet laureate Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), does “Sylvia” rise above a suicide watch. Here, Paltrow and Craig capture moments of passion — and the few signs of a poet’s soul “Sylvia” possesses — as they engage in speed recitations with friends or float by boat along a stream, with Plath calling lines of Chaucer in Middle English to cows on the bank.
Plath and Hughes’ relationship soured amid his philandering, her depression and her jealousy over his early publishing success. But John Brownlow’s screenplay leaves viewers to conclude that was all there was to the marriage.
Their young daughter and son are barely present, their two years living in Plath’s native Massachusetts is depicted in just a few scenes and her time in therapy while in America is ignored.
“Sylvia” mostly settles for giving Paltrow showy moments to rail against Hughes or play the moody emotional martyr in introspective moments.
Suicide remains unexplained We all know Plath killed herself. “Sylvia” provides the facts and external circumstances — death by carbon-monoxide poisoning from her gas oven in February 1963, a month after her book “The Bell Jar” was published. The movie traces the contributing factors — a bad marriage, artistic frustration, critical neglect of her work.
Yet the root causes remain generally unexplored. The film never leaves any sense of her real inner world and what made her predisposed to suicide.
In one scene, Plath’s mother (played by Paltrow’s real-life mom, Blythe Danner) recounts young Sylvia’s early suicide attempt, when she took sleeping pills then hid in a cubbyhole beneath the house, where she was not found until three days later. Again, we’re given the effect, not the cause.
The filmmakers seem to think Plath is such a poster-poet for depression that it’s enough simply to proclaim her as suicidal without exploring why.
New Zealand-born director Jeffs struck a delicate chord with her promising debut feature “Rain” in 2001,” a moody, perceptive study of a teenage girl’s transition to adulthood amid troubled family times. “Sylvia” needed more of “Rain’s” gossamer inward gaze and less of the let’s-win-Gwyneth-another-Oscar histrionics.