Artfully done 'Sylvia' ultimately lacks poetry and passion

Christine Jeffs' "Sylvia," which depicts the relationship of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, arrives at the arthouses with more baggage than an heiress on the bygone Concorde. Few suicides have been analyzed more than Plath's, with its heartbreakingly familiar details: the bread and milk carefully left for the sleeping children, the folded towel to cushion her cheek in the gas oven on that cold night in 1963. And few marriages have been given the scrutiny that Plath and Hughes' brief, tempestuous union posthumously endured in dozens of articles and books. He was cruel, say some. She was crazy, say others. In the end, only the poems — and the children — remain.

Now, four decades after Plath's death (and five years after Hughes'), "Sylvia" the movie purports to give us a look inside that marriage, a look at not Plath and Hughes but Sylvia and Ted. But the film, though sensitive and thoughtful, falls short of its goal. From the outside, you can't see what's going on inside someone else's marriage; that's what's illustrated in "Sylvia," whose pale heroine (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) remains remote.

Movie review

"Sylvia," with Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Blythe Danner, Michael Gambon. Directed by Christine Jeffs, from a screenplay by John Brownlow. 110 minutes. Rated R for sexuality/nudity and language. Harvard Exit.
This may have been inevitable, due to the strictures placed on this movie: Frieda Hughes, just 3 years old when her mother died (she's depicted onscreen as an adorable, solemn toddler in a Dutch-boy haircut), refused permission to the filmmakers to quote Plath's work, except for a line or two. The result is a film about two poets, mostly without poetry. Those unfamiliar with Plath's and Hughes' writing may well wonder, at the end of "Sylvia," just what all the fuss was about; it seems, at times, like just another bad marriage.

And the casting of Paltrow contributes problems of its own. The actress does indeed bear a marked resemblance to Plath, photographs of whom show a red-lipsticked, very American prettiness, and Paltrow's aristocratic, flat voice suits Plath's New England origins. (In the film, Paltrow gives Plath a faint British accent, which at first seems like a mistake but begins to make sense. The poet attended Cambridge University and spent much of the final years of her life in England; the voice is the kind of subtle intonation that a certain sort of American might pick up.)

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But Paltrow has always maintained a slight distance on screen; she's a gifted performer who always seems just a bit formal, keeping an audience at a slim arm's length. So we see Plath's depression, as she feeds and bathes children while Hughes (Daniel Craig) goes off for literary lunches, but not the passion this poet must have had. Late in the film, pathetic and alone, Paltrow becomes childlike; there's a hallway scene with a downstairs neighbor (a gentle Michael Gambon) in which she's quite touching. But how can we know this woman, without knowing the work that made her name?

"Sylvia" is made with great care and much art; cinematographer John Toon finds a beautifully cold blue/green light that illuminates the London scenes. But it meticulously goes through the motions — Ted and Sylvia meet violently (and famously) at a party, discuss her previous suicide attempts, wed, squabble, spit viciously at each other and finally part — without ever quite finding its heart.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or