`Sylvia' needs more than suffering

October 31, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Sylvia is the latest example of a genre more popular with filmmakers than with audiences: the bad-mood piece. Its generalized depiction of poet Sylvia Plath's brief adulthood mostly amounts to lyric suffering. After a swift re-enactment of her euphoric Fulbright Scholar days at Cambridge University in 1956, and the relatively smooth months of her rocky marriage to poet Ted Hughes, the movie follows Plath into increasingly dark and extreme bouts of desperation en route to her suicide.

The screenwriter, John Brownlow, and the director, Christine Jeffs, present Plath's self-destruction as so deeply rooted that it's inexplicable; when she confides her near-death experiences to Hughes, the secrets don't reveal anything. The scraps of biographical data that crop up in conversation, like her father's death when she was 8, never cohere into a psychological portrait.

The ad line says "Life was too small to contain her"; it's true to the filmmakers' vision of Plath as a writer who immolates herself in her art. But they never persuasively dramatize the agony, ecstasy and intricacy of composing poetry. Without that aesthetic component, all you see is that Plath's hunger for life couldn't compete with her death wish.

In trying to be fair about the Hugheses' marriage and divorce, director Jeffs and writer Brownlow conjure a love-hate match riddled with highfalutin academic concepts. Hughes is the catalytic male, philandering and brooding yet also connected to the earth - in short, the poet as shaman. Plath is the super-intuitive female, sensitive to the point of telepathy ("The truth finds me. ... the truth loves me"), yet also an anti-earth mother who's apt to drift into the ether - in short, the poet as sacrificial goddess.

She senses the worst before it happens, such as Ted tumbling into a momentous liaison with a friend. Then Sylvia drives Ted out of the house and turns the affair into a marriage-breaker. It's as if she forces the people around her to complete a fated emotional trajectory.

Gwyneth Paltrow almost puts over these florid concepts. Always a deft comedian, here she summons an otherworldly intensity and an unexpected ability to convey a disappointed womanliness. During a spurned pass at sympathetic poet-critic A. Alvarez (Jared Harris), you see her sensual hopefulness glow and dim, and it shrivels the heart. But without an incisive script, Paltrow can't help us journey to the center of Plath as she tidily prepares for suicide while her two young children sleep in their house.

Blythe Danner, as Plath's New England mother, and Michael Gambon, as her downstairs neighbor in London, fare better in small roles. In just one sequence, Danner etches a mother whose perceptiveness - whose first sight - is equal to her daughter's second sight. In a couple of short scenes, Gambon's kindly, amused, seen-it-all gaze and jowly warmth bring the movie what it otherwise sorely lacks: a sense of the human comedy underlying every tragedy. Sylvia takes its form and content from Plath's death spiral and its tone from her scraped nerves. By the end it gives you poet fatigue.

Sylvia

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow

Directed by Christine Jeffs

Rated R

Released by Focus Features

Time 110 minutes

Sun Score *1/2

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