Shiny Shelf


By Eddie Robson on 20 February 2004

There’s a certain amount of bravery in making this film at all. Sylvia Plath is a literary icon of a particular kind, one who means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and no single view is ever going to satisfy everybody.

Furthermore, any attempt to add gloss to an account of her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes (which is what this film concentrates on) is likely to be met with hatred. This being the case, ‘Sylvia’ was never going to be well-liked after Gwyneth Paltrow was handed the lead role. Some press notices have been extremely hostile – the Evening Standard’s critic called it ‘one of the worst films I’ve ever seen’. However, any charge of gloss is not well-founded – the film is often uncomfortable and Plath’s suicide is appropriately portrayed as a dismal end to a troubled life.

Paltrow, possessed of a bland sort of beauty, is quite a transformative actress and manages to convey Plath well, especially in the voice (if you think Paltrow’s reading of the poetry itself is weak, you’re right – but it’s accurate nonetheless). There’s no need to slate her just because she’s famous. (Daniel Craig has suffered no such criticisms, largely because he’s about as Ted Hugheslike as you could wish for, although he looks much too old in the university sequences.)

In another sense, however, this film is not brave in the slightest. Whatever ambitions the makers might have had, the result tends towards the dry, base-hitting school of biopic-making which shows the life but does not seek to evoke it. Plath’s writings contain many suggestions about how she saw the world but the film makes few visual attempts to suggest that view. At one point it is noted that her poetry evokes the fear of what one sees at the edge of one’s vision: this, for example, could have transferred very well to the cinema screen.

Elsewhere, whilst the film sticks to events as described in Plath’s journals (except in the final year of her life – Hughes destroyed the final volumes and a lot of guesswork was needed), it has to slice and compress in order to fit the available screentime. It’s difficult to create a satisfying narrative from a life story and whilst ‘Sylvia’ does an okay job of assembling the material, there are some fumbles (the segment in America is confusingly portrayed, and later the film implies that Plath hardly did any writing until after she left Hughes).

As a mass-audience account of Plath’s story ‘Sylvia’ will do for now, but one day somebody else will do a better job of it.

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By Eddie Robson

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