Sylvia (2003)

Synopsis: After meeting at Cambridge, Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) and Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) form an unequal literary marriage: his star is on the rise, while she finds herself suffering perpetual writers’ block.  Her chronic mental illness, coupled with his infidelity conspire to consign her to abject misery, but, although left alone with two children, she is finally able to write.  

sylvia-2Sylvia Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, famously refused to co-operate in the making of this film.  She published a censorious poem about the filmmakers in Tatler magazine in May 2003, which explains her objection to the co-option of the poetry for the writing of the life:

They want to use her poetry
As stitching and sutures
To give it credibility.
They think I should love it-
Having her back again, they think
I should give them my mother`s words
to fill the mouth of their monster,
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.

Her main accusation here is that the makers of the film want to fetishise her mother’s depression and suicide, and that they’ll use her poetry as an alibi for doing so, ‘to give it credibility’.  But in practice her refusal to cooperate, to allow her mother’s words to form the basis of the film’s representation of her, ironically forced the filmmakers to focus more on the dramatic ‘soap opera’ aspects of her life than on her literary work, as Kara Kilfoil has pointed out.

Without the poetry, what is the poet?  She is the sum of her actions, behaviours, experiences.  For the film, these include a tempestuous relationship with Ted Hughes, one that is predicated on deep erotic and intellectual attraction, but also her simultaneous inferiority and superiority complexes.  We feel Sylvia’s deep frustration with the role of wife and mother, playing second fiddle to Ted, watching him drift into cruelly casual infidelity.

But most of all, it is Plath’s depression that the film persistently focuses on, because too often in the logic of the Drama film depression= seriousness= worthiness.  Paltrow plays this depression at first as a dreamy detachment from or indifference to living, her voice languorous and thoughtful.  A particularly striking scene comes as she describes a teenage suicide attempt to Ted, in which she hid beneath the floorboards of the house in an earnest attempt to avoid being found and revived.  The dialogue here crudely borrows the title of one of Plath’s poems, as she tells Ted – “Lady Lazarus, that’s me”, a means of alluding to the literary output it can’t use.

The latter part of the film sees a more angry, insistent depression in the protagonist.  Sylvia is devastated at losing her husband, cries, wails, burns his personal effects (another visual allusion to a Plath poem, ‘Burning the Letters’).  She rages against the injustices visited on her, but the hurt and pain unlocks her creative faculties.

Gwyneth Paltrow Sylvia Burning Letters

Visual and verbal allusions – like this one to ‘Burning the Letters’ are only likely to be registered by those who have a certain level of knowledge of the Plath oeuvre.

Here we have that tired old idea of a direct relationship between anguish and creativity, rendered in a montage writing sequence which juxtaposes half-formed Plath lines cross-dissolved on the soundtrack with that hoary old cliche of the hunched up, tear-stained writer over the typewriter, scrunching up her papers.  It concludes with Sylvia providing a supposedly impassioned reading of ‘Daddy’ to Al Alvarez (Jared Harris) which I have always found excruciating because of Paltrow’s robotic intonation.  As so often in this film, the passion is emphasised at the expense of Plath’s searing intelligence.

The film is obsessed  – and accuses Plath of obsession – with death, from the very opening shot.  It shows a horizontal Paltrow/Plath filmed in close up with stark lighting. Her pale face and closed eyes make the figure appear to be dead, indeed, there is a matching shot of Paltrow/Plath at the end of the film after she has died. This immediately brackets the film’s narrative with Plath’s suicide, presenting exactly the ‘Sylvia Death Doll’ that Hughes feared.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath 2003

The film’s opening and closing image – the ‘Sylvia Death-doll’ feared by Frieda Hughes.

Even before the film starts, it announces this framing – its sickly tagline  was ‘Life was too small to contain her’.  This implies that the version of Plath we get will be a woman of excess, of overwhelming intellect, passion, or artistry.  This is not the version we get: this film’s Plath is too small to contain the mass of contradictions represented by Plath, a complex figurehead for female melancholia.  Instead, we get a portrait overwhelmed by hindsight, a reading of the poet dominated by death rather than life – a thanatopic, not a biopic.


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