Any survivor of Freshmen English has encountered the Sylvia Plath poems “Daddy” (dealing with the late poet’s legendary Electra complex) and “Lady Lazarus” (about Plath’s first serious suicide attempt at age 20, a decade before she finally made her death wish come true).
Fierce as these poems are, they were dismissed by the poet herself, according to at least one Plath biography, as “light verse.” And while her assessment surely held a note of irony, the galloping, nursery-rhyme sneer of “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” does represent an intentional departure from much of her other work (“I made a model of you,/ A man in black with a Meinkampf look/ And a love of the rack and the screw,” she burbles madly in the latter poem).
Both pieces appear in Plath’s posthumously published Ariel. Still, Ariel contains verse that’s way more complex, lushly thematic and wrenchingly felt than that pair of poems, with much of the collection written in the last months — even weeks — of Plath’s life.
Yet “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” are by far the most anthologized pieces in Plath’s repertoire.
And like those poems, Sylvia the movie — which features lines from “Lady Lazarus” in its opening scene — merely hop-scotches over the crucial traumas that eventually, and fatally, provoke the poet’s nesting madness: her equally feared-and-loved father’s early death (mentioned only briefly), and her first major suicide attempt (she swallows 40 sleeping pills) and subsequent, disastrously ill-administered shock treatments — again, merely alluded to in dialogue; we’re not even shown flashbacks.
Sylvia, initially and more reasonably titled Ted and Sylvia, is really about Plath’s stormy marriage to English poet Ted Hughes, which soured within a decade — ending with her head in a gas oven, placed there by Plath while her two toddlers slept upstairs. (The couple’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, is today a 40-something poet/painter who violently opposed the making of Sylvia.)
The biopic, long awaited by Plath-o-philes, stars Gwyneth Paltrow in the title role, and Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) as the brooding, philandering Hughes, who went on to become England’s poet laureate. (Blythe Danner, Paltrow’s real-life mom, makes a too-brief appearance as Plath’s frostily meddling mother.) It feels wrong to fault Paltrow’s performance — as the tortured Sylvia, she’s emoting so hard you can almost hear it — and the actress’ commitment to a clearly beloved project is writ deep in every line of her sensitive face.
The poet, who landed in England on a post-grad Fulbright scholarship a scant two years after her suicide attempt and six-month hospital stay (including the unfortunate shock treatments), was a dangerously overachieving student from a cultured, Boston-based family. Given her background, you just know Plath affected the slight British accent Paltrow gives her. And you know she glowered as coolly as Paltrow does when, once married, she’s obliged to play hostess to a couple whose female half Plath correctly suspects will become her main rival for Ted’s love.
Still, something feels as empty here as the film’s gorgeously filmed windswept moors. Paltrow, who can play put-upon like no one else, rarely shows the raving spark of genius that sits sidesaddle with rising madness — again, many a Plath biography attests that the poet was more often encountered in overwhelmingly manic moods than during depressions. And again, the film’s episodic nature (including some painfully corny dialogue) is largely to blame for this hollowness — the script sometimes adds up to little more than a high-budget Lifetime movie or network tragedy-of-the-week drama.
We see, for example, a honeymooning Ted and Sylvia in a little boat navigating a turbulent Mediterranean sea; the tide suddenly rises, and Ted nervously begins to row to shore.
“People drown like this,” he comments.
“I tried to drown myself once,” Plath answers heavily. But of course!
Likewise, some time after Ted has officially left home to pursue his other woman, he stops by the remote country house he shares with Sylvia to retrieve something or other. We’re hoping for what should be an intense first reunion between the ostensibly still-in-love spouses. But the scene is rendered ridiculous when, after a great, swelling, violin-scored flourish, Sylvia whispers only: “Are you still f**king her?” You almost want to giggle — surely not the response the filmmaker was after.
More “showing” and less awkward, trite “telling” are what’s in order here (you never even sense from Sylvia that Hughes liked Plath all that much to begin with; actor Daniel Craig’s main response to his movie wife’s intensity is a look of urbane constipation).
True to life, the film finally shows a Ted-free Sylvia in full thrall to her muse, writing the legendary Ariel poems at a furious pace during her last months on earth. And suddenly, the movie begins to emit some moments that feel real: “I’m going to die, and there will be no one to look after my children,” Paltrow says to a neighbor in a heartbreaking, subtly crafted scene that gives you an idea what Sylvia could have been.
But as the poet suffered, so does the movie — and this saving grace comes too late.
— reviewed by Melanie McGee