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Film: Sylvia doesn't satisfy

photo courtesy of focus films
Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig are the stars of "Sylvia," a film that explores the tumultuous relationship between poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
By Jessica Suarez
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, December 4, 2003
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Like many girls, I am a closet Sylvia Plath fan. She's one of those ubiquitous authors that precocious high school girls adore, just like J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac. Girls like me wore lots of black vintage clothing in high school. We talked about literature, and thought high school boys were immature. We read "The Bell Jar" and had dark thoughts about suicide and it's existentialist consequences. We recited Ginsberg poetry from memory and joined the young socialists of America. Well, some of us did.

"Sylvia" is a biographical look at Sylvia Plath's (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). Their marriage was, well, the stuff of poetry: passionate, violent and tragic.

Plath's last collection of poetry, "Ariel," documented their marriage. Hughes broke his silence on his relationship with Plath in his last collection of poetry, "Birthday Letters." Plath also kept extensive journals until her suicide in 1955. All this documentation should have given director Christine Jeffs plenty of material to work with. Unfortunately, the film seems to never reach the emotional highs and lows that one should expect. For example, when Plath and Hughes met for the first time, they kissed, Hughes stole Plath's headband and earrings, and she bit him violently on the cheek. Plath said in her journal that Hughes kissed her "bang smash on the mouth." This should have been equally pivotal in the film, but the moment is rushed through, unexplained, diminished.

The rest of the film consists of Plath dealing with Hughes' infidelities. Hughes, according to this film, really wasn't that bad, just someone who likes to have affairs once in a while. Plath is a little worse off - she's a shrill wife in some moments, a doorstop for her husband at others.

What Paltrow and the filmmakers seem to have forgotten is that Plath was crazy - really crazy. She tried to kill herself several times before she was finally successful. She stayed in a mental hospital, where she underwent electroshock treatments. She bit her husband the first time they met! Even her friends, in the biography, "Bitter Fame," described her as frighteningly ambitious, prone to outbursts and paranoia. Why, then, does she come across as a battered housewife more than anything else?

Even the two small sex scenes are a disappointment. In "Birthday Letters," Hughes said sex with Plath was like they had "went in a barrel together/Over some Niagara." That's hot. The sex Paltrow has with Craig in the film could be likened to a tepid bath more than a trip over a raging waterfall.

It wouldn't be a spoiler to say that, in the end, Plath kills herself. The film only shows her taping the kitchen door shut before she sticks her head in the oven while her two children sleep upstairs. It's a bleak, muted ending to a bleak, muted film. No one familiar with Plath's life and work would have expected a happier conclusion. But this ending does a disservice to one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. Plath had a dramatic life and a dramatic death, but "Sylvia" reveals neither.

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