Sylvia does a reasonable job of cutting through the cultural figure of Sylvia Plath and revealing something of the person underneath. It never really manages to create a fully fleshed out portrait of the poet though, despite Paltrow’s best efforts, because it chooses to largely focus on her relationship with Ted Hughes (Craig) rather than on her life and work more generally. This isn’t theoretically a problem, and the love story on show here is interesting to watch, but it does tend to run the risk of reducing Plath, her struggles, and her work to little more than a series of marital breakdowns.
I like how the film doesn’t rely on her work as source material, I wish a little more attention had been paid to her trials and successes when writing, but it does wisely avoid reading out too many of her poems – an effect which when used only cheapens the end result. In many ways this is actually quite an intelligent film; it has a relatively tight focus, it doesn’t feel the need to verbalise everything, and instead relies on silence and cuts to take the place of dialogue, and it handles it’s ending very well – avoiding the expected highly melodramatic approach.
There’s a lot of acting talent on display here as well; Paltrow gives an Oscar nomination worthy performance – fleshing out her character far beyond the script’s limitations, and by all appearances immersing herself deeply into the part, Craig has a far more subdued role and fits the bill perfectly with a layered and thoughtful performance, and we have secondary characters played by actors such as Michael Gambon and Jared Harris who all deliver above what is perhaps asked of them by the script. There’s little doubt that the performances across the board elevate Sylvia away from the emotionless, and dreary film that it may well have otherwise been.
You’re not going to be watching the credits with a smile across your face, but come on, would you really expect to? This film chooses the predictable option to heavily focus on some of the darker aspects of Plath’s life, rather than painting a more balanced overview, and yet it also doesn’t fully explore some of the particularly affecting experiences that Plath had. We end up with some form of middle ground between a complex portrayal of Sylvia Plath’s multiple issues, and a celebration of the life and times of a fantastic poet. Despite the fact then that this film feels oddly safe, it is an interesting attempt to represent a cultural icon on film, and it does contain two very good performances, making it one to catch if you have the opportunity.
What is the film’s greatest strength?
Happily I can say it’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance.
Its greatest weakness?
The almost unrelentingly dark tone, and bleak outlook.
Would I see it again?
Yes – the two lead performances, as well as my love for Plath’s poetry will probably draw me back at some point.
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