A film about an artist is inescapably an act of interpretation. Here is the artist’s life; now what does it mean? From Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life, to Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons, to Julian Schnabel’s biopics of graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, artist movies have tended to glorify self-destructiveness as a side effect of genius. In the past few years, a spate of Tortured-Artist movies-Pollock, Joe Gould’s Secret, Frida, The Hours-have nudged the concept along. The coloration has been darkened, so that self-destructiveness no longer figures as a mere byproduct of genius, but perhaps its genesis. Art created out of emotional disorder.

Writers’ emotional disorders, and the art they engender, are harder to capture on the screen than painters’, if only because there’s nothing to look at. “What happens is typing,” novelist Michael Chabon has said of the writer’s life; “a lot of typing.” That’s why a filmmaker may be best advised to take on a failed and/or unknown writer-as Curtis Hanson did in his adaptation of Chabon’s own Wonder Boys. With an unknown you don’t have the problem of the work. When Michael Douglas’s manuscript blows away in the wind at the end of that movie, we know it isn’t The Sound and the Fury that’s being lost, but a failed novel. We care about his life in part because we don’t care about his work. A filmmaker can take on an obscure writer with the freedom of portraying not a public story, but a private one.

Or she can take on Sylvia Plath.

More than perhaps any writer of the last half-century, Plath has become public property. Her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes; her unhappy attempt to play wife, mother, and adoring helpmate; her fury at Hughes’s infidelity; her suicide (in 1963) and the posthumous publication of Ariel, with its stark, confessional rage: Plath’s life and death became part of a feminist critique, her poetic voice offering blasts of articulate anger to four decades of acolyte-readers.

This is a heavy burden for a film, and Christine Jeffs’s Sylvia carries it as well as can be expected. The movie begins with a headshot of Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) lying either asleep or dead-pale, cadaverous, eyes closed. “Dying is an art,” intones Paltrow in a somber voice-over; “I do it exceptionally well.” And then she opens her eyes. It’s an unsettling shot, and the rising-from-the-dead gambit deftly evokes the famous lines of “Lady Lazarus.”

More often, however, Jeffs and her photographer, John Toon, struggle to evoke poetic consciousness itself. Toon shot Jeffs’s previous film, Rain, a superb coming-of-age movie set in New Zealand, and many of the same visual effects are in evidence here. In Rain, slow-motion camerawork helped create a perilous, dreamy suspension between childhood and adulthood; in Sylvia it seems much more gimmicky. At her writing desk Plath looks out pensively at slow-motion seagulls, at slow poetic wind swirling poetic leaves. Does she see in slow-mo? Jeffs’s reliance on dark lighting, moodily symbolic shots of clouds covering a bright moon, and full-throttle orchestral music borders on emotional manipulation-especially as the music builds, operatically, toward Plath’s approaching suicide. Suicide is “blackness and silence,” Plath’s friend, the critic A. Alvarez warns her. Jeffs should have used more silence to evoke that looming darkness.

Curiously for a psychological film, Sylvia dispenses with Plath’s early life and picks up her story in England, where she studied at Cambridge. Jeffs and her screenwriter, John Brownlow, toss in a few scenes of Plath’s and Hughes’s courtship. A party game of reciting poetry at machine-gun speed conveys the brash bohemian macho (Oxbridge variant) of the ’50s poetry scene, in which a female poet is allowed to play a man’s game. “A fucking good poem is like a weapon,” Hughes (Daniel Craig) blusters. “It’s like a bloody big bomb.” These scenes capture the era’s belief in poetry as dangerous and subversive. And erotic. At the party where they first meet, Plath makes a beeline to Hughes and praises his poems in wanton terms. Instantly the two are whirling on the dance floor-more slow-mo!-and from there it’s a short hop to the bedroom and a brisk athletic tussle for dominance.

The rest of the film gets down to the business of Plath’s agonized marriage and the acid poetry that bubbled up from it. Plath writes “as if she were continually menaced by something she can see only out of the corner of her eye,” Hughes quotes, reading to her from the A. Alvarez review of her first book of poems. Alvarez, himself a suicide survivor, appreciated Plath’s dark genius from the start, and his comments have a pedagogical function in Brownlow’s screenplay. When Plath/Paltrow reads Alvarez (Jared Harris) a few lines of “Daddy,” then asks if it’s good, he replies, “It’s stunning-an explosion of fury.” “Such horrors, expressed with a coolness,” he comments to her later; “like a murderer’s confession.” The film’s dependence on a built-in reviewer points out the inherent difficulty of dramatizing poetry. What would we do without Alvarez there to slip us the Cliffs Notes?

Jeffs delivers the feminist critique by summoning the oppressive claustrophobia of Plath’s marriage and the asymmetrical opportunity it provides for his-and-hers literary careers. Burdened with squalling babies and housework, her husband an incorrigible womanizer surrounded at parties by adoring females-“It can’t be easy,” quips a guy at one party, “being married to that”-Plath becomes a frenzied dervish of jealousy. The second half of the film alternates scenes of her trashing Hughes’s desk, burning his letters and poems, with darkly dreamy shots of suicide’s seductive call: the poet standing at the edge of the sea, gazing at muddy roiling water; or pouring out a handful of pills, only to pour them back in. Not yet. There is still the poetry to write-poetry composed, the film would have us believe, in a fit of suicidal misery, Plath rocking over her page like an autism sufferer and weeping as she writes. Surely there was a direct connection between Plath’s destructive and creative urges. But how to explore it without melodrama?

Paltrow performs more than creditably, in a role that looks like a showcase but is actually a nearly impossible task. As Hughes, Daniel Craig is suitably powerful, handsome, and self-involved, while Blythe Danner (Paltrow’s real-life mother) provides a show-stealing performance, in an all-too-brief sequence of scenes in which she confronts her daughter’s new husband. “I think you frightened her, and that’s why she liked you,” she says to Hughes, summoning the cold unsentimental insight of a rival.

The insight, suggesting a Plath cowed into marriage like a child, shows the stamp Jeffs has put on her subject. Sylvia is remarkably similar to Jeffs’s (far better) first movie. Rain addressed the damage of infidelity, ruing its destructive effect on family life (that film also ends in a death), and endowing the girl protagonist, Janey, with an unerring instinct for uncovering her parents’ deceptions: “I want to know the truth,” she demands. Plath confronts Hughes similarly. “The truth comes to me,” she says; “the truth loves me.”

But the search for truth-the truth of infidelity-proves less resonant this time round for Jeffs. To a child, parental marital deceit comes as a revelation, because parental relations themselves are a mystery. To dig for the truth is to tunnel forward from childhood toward adulthood, and what made Rain poetic was precisely this tunneling into mystery. But Plath was already an adult when Hughes cheated on her. Jeffs doesn’t quite seem to recognize this, and as a result, Sylvia flirts with what would seem to be an oddly antifeminist interpretation-Plath as the little girl who never grew up, whose rage at the husband-father is the rage of a child. That might have been interesting, but Jeffs doesn’t really pursue it. In the end the movie risks subsuming Plath’s life-and her art-into a humdrum story of marital infidelity; of just another very jealous woman whose very selfish husband has a very sloppy affair. And where’s the poetry in that? end

Published in the 2003-11-21 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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