“A writer should be remembered for his writing,” Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, but in the world of movies many writers tend to be remembered for their personal lives and love affairs.
T. S. Eliot in “Tom and Viv” was a neurotic and cold man incapable of loving his wife/muse; Oscar Wilde in “Wilde” was tormented by his affection for a young and callous lord; and Iris Murdoch in “Iris” is shown either as a sexual free spirit reigning over the young dons at Oxford University, or as a befuddled, Alzheimer’s-ridden old woman who couldn’t string a sentence together.
In this sense, “Sylvia,” a biopic of American poet and feminist icon Sylvia Plath, follows the movie-about-writers tradition, showing her to be at once beautiful, fashionable, despondent and despairing, but hardly ever portraying her engaged in what she is worshipped for — her writing.
“Sylvia” splits her life rather brutally between marriage and self-destruction. The temptation to do so is understandable — there was enough color and drama there to warrant an HBO mini-series.
Plath was married to dazzling ’60s poet (and later British poet laureate) Ted Hughes. They had two children before the couple separated when Hughes embarked on an affair with a mutual friend. Shortly afterwards, Plath set out a tray of food and milk in her children’s bedroom, sealed up their door, wrote a note to the babysitter and put her head in the gas oven. She was 31 years old. The film frustratingly omits the period between her husband’s departure and her death, a time of feverish creative output when she wrote her best poems and an autobiography which Hughes later suppressed from publication.
Plath in “Sylvia” is insecure, lonely and full of sexual longing for her talented, roguish husband, but the woman who empowered herself through her poetry, who weaved lines of defiance and sardonic wit, is nowhere to be seen. It’s little wonder that her daughter Frieda Hughes not only refused to cooperate with the filmmakers, but went as far as to publish a poem with the line “propping up Sylvia’s suicide doll” to protest at how director Christine Jeffs and writer John Brownlow depicted her mother’s life.
This significant omission aside, “Sylvia” is carefully crafted, stylishly atmospheric and perfectly tailored to suit Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role — she and Plath even share an uncanny physical resemblance. This is Paltrow’s best performance to date, and she seems to channel the inner demons that spurred Plath to prolific creativity in the face of betrayal, poverty and crushing solitude.
But in the movie the demons take center stage and Plath the poet recedes into the background. We see a passionate woman who alternated between tenderness and stormy fits of jealousy, who longs to write but spends most of her time pottering around the house or making dozens of cupcakes.
“You go for a walk and come back with an epic in hexameters. I sit down to write and wind up with a bake sale,” she complains to her husband (excellently portrayed by Craig Daniels). The camera then cuts to Hughes, whose face is full of impatience and disappointment. He had wanted to share his life with a sexy and compelling poet rival and not this pretty similitude of a housewife (and we in the audience feel the same way).
But by all accounts Plath had never been anything but brilliant, if not always able to reveal her brilliance in the way she truly wished. She had grown up as an overachieving student in a liberal New England household and had gone to Oxford on a Fulbright scholarship. There she met and married Hughes, described in one of Plath’s poems as always having “a love for the rack and the screw,” and the pair set off on a six-year marriage that ended when he fell in love with Assia Wevill (Amira Casar), who had come to rent the couple’s London flat with her husband and initiated a romance.
“Sylvia” implies that Wevill was by no means the first of Hughes’s affairs, and by the time she came along Plath was already stuck in a rut of perpetual suspicion and misery. Whenever Hughes picked up the phone from a female editor Plath would fly into a tempestuous rage; highlighting her plight as a woman condemned to insecurity and obscurity while her husband grabbed the spotlight. “Sylvia” is careful not to accuse or judge Hughes outright, but implies in the very beginning that Plath had foreseen her fate when she first laid eyes on him: “Black marauder,” she wrote, “you will be the death of me.”