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Sylvia’ explores heights, depths of poet’s life

Molly Griffin | Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The film Sylvia has many parallels with the writings of its subject, poet Sylvia Plath. It is full of dark yet beautiful images, it is at times confusing and frightening in its sheer intensity of emotion, and it leaves you with a resigned sense of despair and a number of unanswered questions. The movie, much like Plath’s own life, is not a light-hearted romantic comedy but is instead a fascinating study in how blurry the line between art and insanity can be and how living between these two worlds can inspire one to creativity and drive one to madness at the very same time.

The film traces Plath’s life from her college days at Cambridge to her final chaotic years in London, but her stormy marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes emerges as the central focus of the movie.

Their tumultuous relationship consists of emotional ups and downs stemming from the personal flaws of both characters. Gwenyth Paltrow embodies the role of Plath well – she avoids making Sylvia a pitiable and victimized character and instead brings out the brilliance of her wit, her frequently grating and unlikable nature and believable bouts of insanity.

Ted Hughes, played by Daniel Craig, emerges as a character as flawed and brilliant as Plath herself, with Craig melding his love, anger, moodiness and unfaithfulness into one equally convincing character. The interaction between the two actors brings the passion and perils of the two poets’ relationship to the screen with all of the necessary emotion, which is especially important because there are few other characters in the movie, and none play a particularly major role in the movie.

The film avoids the major pitfall of presenting the relationship between Plath and Hughes in not portraying Plath as the blameless victim of a violent male aggressor. Instead, the film attempts to look at the realities of their relationship. Plath was needy, somewhat bipolar, suspicious and driven to have her poetry embraced by mainstream culture.

Hughes had difficulties with his temper, strayed from his wife and frequently concerned himself only with his work. Neither party is blameless in their tumultuous relationship and both suffer from and are inspired by their bond between their souls that both ties them together and drives them apart time after time.

The end of the film is no surprise to anyone who knows about Plath’s life. The movie seeks not so much to answer the question of, “Why did she do it?” but instead shows the factors that contributed to her desperation and, ultimately, shows the very depths of Plath’s mental instability.

The film, like Plath’s own life, has ups and downs, moments of intensity and dull stretches, but, in the end, it is a fascinating study in the life of an artist. It is geared towards those who are already fans of Plath’s life and works, but for those new to Plath, the film is an in-depth introduction to Plath and her personal demons.

Slow sections and a bit too much emoting can make the film seem tedious at times, but upon leaving the theatre, one feels a deeper understanding of Plath, art and mental instability, making it a picture that is enjoyable to watch and even better to ponder once the film has ended.

The film opens and closes on a large weeping willow, a bold image that sears into the mind and recalls the large, foreboding, black sadness that inhabited Sylvia Plath and drove her to the heights of artistry and the depths of insanity.

Contact Molly Griffin at mgriffin@nd.edu