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Sylvia tells the story of
the marriage and death of the famous confessional poet Sylvia Plath. Its
characterization of Plath is straightforward: she is emotionally fragile,
passionate, jealous, bitter, and torn between her desire to be a poet and a
good wife and mother. Her husband, Ted Hughes, is arrogant and, largely thanks
to her help, successful. When they first met, he with another woman, but he
willingly kissed Plath anyway. As his reputation grows and he teaches at an
American college, he gathers young female admirers, and Plath looks on feeling
threatened. Later in their marriage, back in England, when they have two
children, Hughes has an affair and eventually moves out, and this precipitates Plath's
final depression and a period of intense creativity during which she wrote her
Made in association with BBC Films
and the UK Film Council, Sylvia mainly sticks to the documented facts of
the poets' lives in broad outline and sticks to the familiar formula of
biographical films, with 1950s costuming and sets, an unobtrusive orchestral
score, and tasteful depictions of the couple's initial sexual encounters.
Gwyneth Paltrow's portrayal of Plath is powerful, but makes her an unattractive
figure. Paltrow speaks in a tight, angry voice for the whole film, sounding
quite like Plath on the recordings of her reading her poetry. As their
marriage starts to decay, Paltrow does her best to capture the emotional
anguish Plath experienced, and the film features prominent use of violins to
heighten the sense of desperation, but this crucial part of the film lacks
The shorthand of film requires that
many aspects of these poets' lives are left out. The film gives no sense of just
how eccentric Ted Hughes was, with his beliefs in astrology, numerology, and
magic, and his poetry in which wild animals and the excesses of nature are
worshipped. The film also gives very little sense of Plath's community with
other poets, her time in workshops with poets such as Ann Sexton, and her
relationship with her mother. Those who have read one or more biographies of Plath
are bound to be frustrated with the selective way the film deals with her life,
but that is in the nature of film. Hopefully, those who see the film and want
to learn more about Plath and especially the last seven years of her life will
be inspired to read one of her biographies.
Maybe the biggest dramatic license
the film takes is with her suicide. Ted Hughes visits her and she approaches
him, kissing him. They end up making love and after, lie on a couch in each
other's arms, and Sylvia says that they can put the whole terrible fast months
behind them. But Hughes then delivers her death sentence by saying that won't
be possible, because now his lover is pregnant. This shatters Plath's final
hopes, and she resolves on her own death in the next scene. This may be a
plausible speculation as to what happened, but there is no evidence those
events actually took place. It's an interpretation that fits well with the
stance taken by many feminists after Plath's death, and that led to outrage
that Hughes as her husband had complete control over her literary works and
profited from the subsequent massive success of The Bell Jar and Ariel.
It is tempting to speculate whether the director Christine Jeffs and
screenwriter John Brownlow chose this ending because it fit with their
convictions or whether it happened to deliver the biggest emotional punch.
Unfortunately, there is no director's commentary on the DVD so we are left none
Ultimately, Sylvia is a
worthy rendering of one of the twentieth century's most important poets, but it
doesn't provide any new insights and the constricted and bleak tone of the film
make it a work most viewers would be unwilling to sit through more than
© 2004 Christian
Perring. All rights reserved.
Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division
and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and
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