Movie Reviews
12:00 pm
Mon November 10, 2003

Sylvia

Those who long to be in touch with poetic icons of the last century will welcome whatever bits of insight it gives.

"Sylvia" is an engaging biopic of poet Sylvia Plath's emotional juggernaut marriage to poet Ted Hughes. It reminds me of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in the also emotionally rich "Frida." But in neither case do we ever get an understanding of how the artists actually construct their art from their minds and their lives. Perhaps that exploration can never be done in film.

The emotion in "Sylvia" is fully fleshed with Gwyneth Paltrow seeming to channel the beautiful but disturbed author of the poetry collections "Colossus" and "Ariel" as well as the popular novel "Bell Jar." Never does the actress overact, even in her desperate, suicidal moments as she envisions an unfaithful Hughes. Her infrequent forays outside of her cottage or apartment let us breathe in other, less convoluted characters like Michael Gambon's helping but helpless downstairs neighbor.

When it comes down to it, Sylvia is the subject as she is of her poems. The first words of the film are from her "Lady Lazarus": "Dying is an art." New Zealand Director Christine Jeffs prepares us for Plath's artful death with Gabriel Yared's original and telegraphing scoring and cinematographer John Toon's somber and symbolic colors.

Comparing this film with last year's "Hours," starring Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, leads me to conclude I had an easier time understanding Woolf's life than I did Plath's, yet I felt Plath's insanity much more clearly in "Sylvia," if I did not completely understand it.

It's hard to tell in Plath's own life whether writer's block or plain old jealousy led to her suicide; this film weighs in on sex jealousy. And that, of course, reminds me of the quintessential sex-jealousy drama of all time, "Othello":

O beware my lord, of jealousy!

It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock

The meat it feds on.

This dark drama, bordering on melodrama, is not for everyone. But those who long to be in touch with poetic icons of the last century will welcome whatever bits of insight it gives.