Upon entering the cinema, I suspected that the representations of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were going to seem two dimensional when compacted into a film of slightly less than two hours. I was pleasantly surprised that this was not entirely the case.
Though Gwyneth Paltrow concentrates upon representing Sylvia primarily as an anguished artist, and regularly employs meaningful contemplative silences to break a monotone delivery, she is by no means unconvincing in her role. It is a mammoth task to capture a figure as complex as Plath in such a short space of time, even more so considering a script that is a little thin (it plays repeatedly upon her suicidal tendencies). Given these limitations, Paltrow copes well, providing instances that present Plath as less of an icon, and more of identifiable individual. A sense of crushing inertia is deftly portrayed, and may reflect upon the experiences of those who watch her try to overcome her problems.
There is, however, a sense in the film that Plath is overplayed as a tortured, suffocated genius. We regularly see her look concentratedly out from pre Raphaelite like swathes of loose hair, see her tear up an awful lot of manuscripts to express her intellectual fury at the world (plus the womanising Ted) and spin into jealous dementia at the mention of another woman. Nevertheless, even at her most disjointed, Paltrow manages to keep you watching.
Possibly the more morbid among us will want to watch how she was driven to suicide, and the film is quite overt in suggesting her inexorable demise. The very beginning involves a quote of hers, concerning the dilemmas she had in choosing the life she wants, referring to possibilities as branches, and how their leaves, representing her poems, were withering and dying as she tried to decide. From here on, the film didn’t seem to promise much of a celebration of her life, but a litany of ways in which this life (or tree) was going to wither.
There were some interesting departures from the general gloom of this interpretation of Plath’s life. Paltrow even dared to look vivacious (in a restrained way) as Plath at last started to receive good reviews and apparently channel her anguish into some impressive work, including her novel The Bell Jar. Yet, as Hughes wanders back into her life, has his way with her and then mentions his current girlfriend is pregnant (and can’t possibly go back to Sylvia), we know where she’s heading in the next five minutes or so.
Hughes, played by Daniel Craig, is possibly one of the greatest flaws in the movie. Plath’s critic and publisher mentions that she and Hughes had a unique understanding of each other that would be disastrous to waste, but there is little evidence of this on screen. He was little more than an archetypal bastard in the film, and in a way he may have been, but there was more to his relationship with Plath than that. Birthday Letters, anyone?
Yet, this is a film about Sylvia herself, not Hughes, and the intensity of Paltrow’s acting is still compelling. However, if you want to see more of Plath, it would be better to read her work than see someone interpret how she wrote it.