“Sylvia” (2003) begins with American poet Sylvia Plath reading a bad review of her work and meeting British poet Ted Hughes. It ends with the gas oven. Perhaps the filmmakers should have kept the US working title, “Ted and Syliva”, because the film focuses almost soley on the relationship between Plath and Hughes and the destructiveness of it. Unfortunately, I think it also perpetuates the myth that Hughes drove Plath to suicide, which inspires women to flock to Plath’s grave and scrape off the name “Hughes” from her tombstone.
While the film focuses on the misery Plath goes through–and causes–in her marriage, it only alluded to her prior misery with Plath casually and hypnotically refering to past suicide attempts. In reality, Plath was a troubled woman from the beginning. The movie only hints at her despair over her father’s death when she was a child, her overbearing mother, and Plath’s perfectionism that drove her to madness. While mainly romanticizing the doomed relationship with Hughes, it ignores Plath’s high ambition to have it all and have it well: Plath, a straight-A, award-winning student wanted fame, a family and everything else in between. The weight of this ‘world of everything’ crushed her, with Hughes leaving her for Assia Wevill being the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
The whole story of Sylvia and Ted–aside from the doomed love part this movie glorifies–is far more interesting and dramatic. Assia Wevill, the woman Hughes left Plath for, eventually killed herself and her child with Hughes, like Plath, by carbon monoxide posioning. There are accusations that Hughes burned some of Plath’s journals after her death, and her mother went through the surviving journals with nail clippers, removing the parts she didn’t like. In my opinion, the whole picture of these two poets would have been more epic and interesting that just this sliver of the relationship.
While the scope of the film is limited, it is still creative and artful. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a magnificant Sylvia; Daniel Craig is a strong, if not quite as good looking, Hughes. It is visually stunning, with music that hints at impending doom. However, I understand why Frieda Hughes (daughter of Plath and Hughes) didn’t want this movie made—it glorifies the depression and despair of Plath’s life into weirdly romantic proportions. My suggestion to those interested in learning about Plath is to read one of the many extensive biographies before viewing this movie.
Previously mentioned on Blogcritics.org: