Dir: Christine Jeffs. UK. 2003. 110 mins.
We've had Jacqueline du Pre and Iris Murdoch, so perhaps it was inevitable that a biopic of Sylvia Plath, also shot in dingy British interiors and drenched in despair, would follow. After all, Hilary And Jackie (1998) and Iris (2001) both scored multiple Academy Award nominees in acting categories, a feat which served to draw free publicity, if not audiences, to those otherwise turgid pieces. Indeed, assumed awards recognition for the lead performance of Gwyneth Paltrow is surely one of the only reasons for Sylvia to have been greenlit, since otherwise its commercial prospects are difficult to identify. The story of Sylvia Plath's descent into depression after the failure of her marriage to Ted Hughes and her eventual suicide is tenderly crafted by New Zealand director Christine Jeffs, but it offers little by way of insight into the work of either Plath or Hughes nor into Plath's relationship with her children, her American family or the nature of her mental illness.
Paltrow's involved performance and her star name will draw attention to Sylvia but the film is neither literary nor imaginative enough to warrant strong reviews and significant specialised success. You get the feeling that the cast and crew all knew Plath's writings inside out during production, but it was decided that weaving them into the film would turn audiences off. As it is, Ted and Sylvia could be anybody and their troubles could be any couple's troubles. At least The Hours attempted to illuminate Virginia Woolf's process as she wrote Mrs Dalloway, and Frida likewise made imaginative stabs at interpreting Frida Kahlo's painting.
Plath had already tried suicide a couple of times (sleeping pills, drowning) before she met the talented poet Hughes (Craig) at Cambridge in 1956 and the two began their famous doom-laden marriage. She dedicates herself to helping him achieve recognition and indeed he wins a literary prize in the US which takes them to Boston where Hughes is introduced to Plath's mother (Paltrow's own mother Danner) and Plath first starts suspecting her handsome husband of infidelities.
Unhappy in Massachussetts, Hughes suggests a return to London where Plath has a baby and finally publishes her first collection of poetry The Colossus in 1960 although she is devastated by the paucity of attention paid it by reviewers in contrast to Hughes' increasing fame.
Further enraged by her husband's popularity with the ladies, Plath persuades him to move to remote Devon where she begins to suspect he is involved with a married friend Assia (Casar). In a memorable dinner party scene, Plath is the hostess-from-hell as she hurls dishes and undisguised barbs at Assia and her husband (Havill).
Hughes can take no more of her jealousy and leaves for London. Sylvia goes there as well with her child and new baby and, suffering mightily from the separation, starts to write her most luminous poetry. Having completed her only novel The Bell Jar, she attempts a reconciliation with Hughes in 1963, but Assia is now pregnant, and he refuses, leaving no other option for Sylvia than to turn the oven on.
The screenplay by John Brownlow focuses almost exclusively on the unhappinesses of Plath's life, neglecting to address her role as mother or the stories she wrote for children, in favour of too many scenes of Plath tearing the house up or waiting in unlit rooms for the errant Hughes to come home. Some of Jeffs' creative choices are also misjudged - Gabriel Yared has written an extraordinarily overbearing score, for example.
The acting is top-drawer, as is de rigeur in these dreary UK biopics. Paltrow pulls off the tough job of making Sylvia compelling if not likeable, and could easily score her second Oscar nomination. Craig possesses the requisite sexual magnetism to make Hughes such an attractive personality.
Prod cos: Ruby Films, BBC Films, UK Film Council.
US dist: Focus Features.
Int'l sales: Capitol Films.
Exec prods: David M Thompson, Tracey Scoffield, Robert Jones, Jane Barclay, Sharon Harel.
Prod: Alison Owen.
Scr: John Brownlow.
DoP: John Toon.
Prod des: Maria Djurkovic.
Ed: Tariq Anwar.
Mus: Gabriel Yared.
Main cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Amira Casar, Blythe Danner, Andrew Havill, Sam Troughton, Michael Gambon.