Sylvia

Movie Review by Neil Ryan

Starring: Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Michael Gambon, Jared Harris, Blythe Danner

Director: Christine Jeffs

Typical innit? You wait your whole life for a gloomily realistic cinematic portrait depicting the tragic demise of a twentieth century iconic female writer – and then three of the buggers come along one after t’other. For those amongst you who were not left feeling sufficiently maudlin by the celluloid doomfest of mental illness and death in IRIS (Iris Murdoch) and THE HOURS (Virginia Woolf), here is a bonus: a biopic tracing the suicidal decline of the literary torchbearer for sensitive teenage proto-feminists the world over.

SYLVIA actually begins quite brightly: it is Cambridge in the 1950s and ambitious American student Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) becomes involved with a literary clique that revolves around the handsome and imposing young poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). There is an immediate attraction between the two of them and the ensuing courtship and marriage coincides with their transformation from precocious students to writers of considerable renown. However, a darker side of Sylvia’s character gradually comes to the fore as she finds herself increasingly housebound by her duties as wife and mother. Ted, meanwhile, is developing into a poet of internationally lauded status and the extra demands on his time and attention fuel Sylvia’s paranoid disquiet. Her moribund brooding precipitates a separation from Ted, and this in turn ignites, both, her most fruitful period of writing and her latent suicidal tendencies.

SYLVIA is a well-made and well-acted drama that will hold particular appeal for students of English Literature (and will probably spark a rush of interest in Plath’s written work). Blessed with the award-friendly themes of real-life tragedy and misunderstood genius it can probably expect to figure in future nominations; indeed some critics have hailed Paltrow’s performance as a career-best performance. However, for me, one hour and forty-five minutes is not long enough to do justice to the time-span covered by the film. Youthful, optimistic courtship rapidly gives way to marital suspicion and domestic distress with only a cursory mention of Plath’s pre-Cambridge suicide attempt. By not allowing the viewer sufficient time to invest emotionally in the pre-depression Plath it could be argued that some of the impact of her demise is diminished. Thoroughly worthy and occasionally poignant, SYLVIA is cinema to be admired rather than loved. Do not expect to leave the theatre humming the theme tune, but for students of angst it will neatly fill the void in between listening to Joy Division’s ‘Top Pop Party Hits’ and reading Primo Levi’s ‘Crazy Comic Capers’.

4 out of 6 stars

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