2003, Movie, R, 110 mins


Gwyneth Paltrow's subtle yet powerful performance as poet Sylvia Plath in New Zealand director Christine Jeffs's (RAIN) stylish biopic is a welcome return to form after such forgettable junk as SHALLOW HAL and VIEW FROM THE TOP. Skipping Plath's early years entirely — a questionable strategy when dealing with a life haunted by childhood loss — Jeffs focuses exclusively on Plath's seven-year marriage to English poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). Their union has long been the subject of intense controversy between those who hold that the deeply troubled Plath was driven to self-destruction by a cruel, philandering husband and those who argue she was only the victim of her own personal demons. While the film is soft on Hughes, it generally navigates a safe middle ground. American Fulbright scholar Sylvia first meets the rakishly handsome Ted in 1956 at a Cambridge University soiree for Ted's fledgling literary journal, three years after Plath suffered an emotional meltdown that culminated in a suicide attempt. Sexual sparks fly, and within months Sylvia and Ted, now a prize-winning published poet, are married and living near Plath's widowed mother, Aurelia (Paltrow's real-life mother, Blythe Danner), in a Boston suburb. Sylvia teaches poetry at her alma mater, Smith College, while Ted lectures adoring co-eds of the University of Massachusetts, an arrangement that stirs Sylvia's paranoia and deep-seated distrust. She also finds it increasingly hard to write in Ted's lengthening shadow, and once the couple moves back to England, where Sylvia gives birth to the first of their two children, the indifference that greets her first book of poems, The Colossus, aggravates her incipient depression. Sylvia and Ted retreat to the picturesque gloom of the Devon countryside, where Ted finally admits to having an affair with the wife of a fellow poet. Sylvia slips into a deep, dark despair out of which she produces her greatest work while confronting her doom. Jeffs flawlessly cast the film, and if it doesn't bring much to the public Plath debate — a discourse in which Hughes flatly refused to engage until shortly before his death in 1998, when he published his elegiac collection, Birthday Letters — it's a first-rate showcase for Paltrow. With her beautiful, haunted eyes, Paltrow underplays what a lesser actor would have rendered luridly histrionic. But while there's plenty of Shakespeare, Lawrence and Yeats scattered throughout John Brownlow's screenplay, there's precious little Plath — no doubt the unfortunate result of the stranglehold the Hughes estate still maintains over her work. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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