Sylvia
3 out of 5 stars
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This biopic about the relationship between poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes has the requisite dark tone and superb performances, but it feels simplistic in its examination of the tortured mind of a gifted woman. It begins in mid-50s Cambridge, where Plath and Hughes (Paltrow and Craig) meet in a flurry of artistic appreciation and uncontrolled lust. They marry and move to Boston, where Plath struggles with her past (Paltrow's real mother Danner plays her harsh on-screen mother wonderfully). But with the distractions of motherhood and work as a teacher she loses her muse ... while Hughes builds both acclaim and sexy young women fans. So back to Britain they go, where Hughes finds even more notoriety and Plath descends even deeper her artistic struggle. This drives her away from her more professional, easy-going husband, until her desperately tragic suicide in 1963 at age 30.

Like Titanic, we know from the start where this is going, and all credit to the filmmakers that they keep us gripped, drawing out emotional resonance and letting Paltrow and Craig create fascinating characters along the way. After a series of fairly breezy films, Plath is a seriously meaty role for Paltrow to sink her chops into, and she's remarkably complex as a woman fighting so many inner demons that she loses sight of the world around her. So it's a pity that the script distils Plath down to one basic driving emotion: jealousy for both her husband's greater success (she's dismissed I Britain as substandard because she's American and female) and his perceived infidelity. Since the script includes references to her extremely troubled childhood, there's surely more to her than this, but the filmmakers don't seem to trust the audience with the more uncomfortable, ambiguous truth.

That said, Leffs directs the film inventively, somehow capturing the joy and happiness while maintaining the much darker shadows that threaten to overwhelm the characters at any moment. This razor's edge is present through the whole film, even in the poetic wordplay of the couple's friends. Although there aren't many friends; the film is insular and very tightly focussed on Sylvia and Ted. Even their children are barely here. And sometimes this tight focus gets a bit silly, including one ludicrous movie-sex scene near the end. Even so, there's a raw beauty here. Like Plath's poems, which don't have nearly enough screen time, the film is, to quote a character, "beautiful, frightening, haunting."

cert 15 themes, language, sex 6.Nov.03 lff

dir Christine Jeffs
scr John Brownlow
with Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Blythe Danner, Michael Gambon, Amira Casar, Andrew Havill, Lucy Davenport, Liddy Holloway, David Birkin, Alison Bruce, Julian Firth
release US 17.Oct.03; UK 30.Jan.04
BBC
03/UK 1h48

True love with a twist: Craig and Paltrow

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2003 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall

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