Directed by Christine Jeffs, whose Rain was a poignant look at a young girl starting to realize her own form of beauty, Sylvia takes us through the tempestuous relationship between Sylvia Plath (Paltrow) and Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). They meet, quickly mate, his philandering tendencies are revealed, he leaves, she kills herself. The end. Of course, all of this is public knowledge already, so the details of the travails would be what makes or breaks the film, and unfortunately more stock is put into getting the facts right than in creating much interest in them.
This lack of emotional connection or depth can be traced directly to the script. As each of the actors hold up their end well in playing singular dimensional roles, and considering that Jeffs has previously executed a strong story of the difficult period of adolescence for a woman, there is no where else to place the blame. It is as if writer John Brownlow had a checklist of events to go through, and the actors showed up to do the best they could gleam from the writings of the poets.
Each actor does put in a sincere performance on the limited material. There are several stunning moments that click well, where the amount of potential for illuminating interaction shines through. Two of these occur with editor/friend Al Alvarez (the always wonderful Jared Harris) and are rare glimpses into how the duo had a uniquely powerful relationship while still maintaining a sense of dynamic individualism. When Hughes is explaining how he loves Plath but can't go back to her, the multiple layers of their difficulties get a brief complexity unseen throughout the rest of the film. Similarly, when Plath is talking about life on her own after giving Alvarez her latest work and hitting on him, the quiet and depressing pathos that garnered her notoriety finally resonates.
The consequence of filming a writer, far too often, is that you tend to watch them sitting around and stewing with frustration instead of living the life that inspires their work. There is also too much reliance on name or scandal recognition to pull a story through, as in the multiple missed-opportunity that Sylvia becomes. As beautifully and respectfully shot, and as well acted as the film is, Sylvia falls short of providing the three-dimensional portrait of a troubled soul that it seeks to do.
Life in the bell jar.
Run time: 100 mins
In Theaters: Friday 30th January 2004
Box Office USA: $1.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $10M
Distributed by: Focus Features
Production compaines: Focus Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 37%
Fresh: 48 Rotten: 81
IMDB: 6.3 / 10
Director: Christine Jeffs
Producer: Alison Owen
Screenwriter: John Brownlow
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