Sylvia – Review (Spoiler Free)

Sylvia Film PosterGwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig shine in this dark, and oddly tame little film.

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.

Summary:

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.

Thanks for reading, scribble out your thoughts in the comment box below!

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17 comments

  1. I haven’t seen this but my girlfriend loves the film. Biopics are tricky things, and this one, although dark, sounds pretty .. honest? And I love that you write it’s spoiler free. Don’t we all know what happens to her? lol

    1. I can understand that, it’s not a bad film – it’s just not as good as perhaps it could have been!
      Yeah it’s odd, in someways this is honest, but then at the same time there’s the danger of you coming away from it thinking that Plath was just some jealous woman who worried about little other than where her husband was at all times! I’m being a little unfair, but I do think that the film has to much focus on the relationship between Plath and Hughes, and doesn’t really paint a wider picture of who she was.

      Ha ha, yeah trying to work out exactly what could be taken as a spoiler for this one was pretty difficult!

  2. Great review, I do think that playing a real person is a very big challenge in movies.

    1. Thanks! It must be, for all sorts of reasons. Paltrow though does a great job, within the confines of the script, at bringing Plath to the screen.

  3. This doesn’t sound like something I’ll see but good work, sir!

    1. Ha ha, I wouldn’t have thought it was your sort of thing but thanks buddy!

  4. Interesting, I haven’t actually heard of this film before; will definitely check it out, even if only for Paltrow’s performance.

    1. Yeah it’s worth a watch, especially of you’re a fan of Plath and her work. Just don’t go into it expecting all that much lightheartedness!

  5. I didn’t even know about this film James. Plath had such a tragic end, but I’m not familiar w/ her life in general. This one sounds intriguing, haven’t seen Paltrow act in anything other than the Iron Man movies, ahah.

    1. Well the focus is on her relationship with Hughes, but that in itself should be pretty interesting if you don’t know much about her life.
      I haven’t sen lots of Paltrow either! I have seen her in Sliding Doors and a few others.

  6. Gwyneth Paltrow? Damn. I’ll pass. šŸ™‚

    1. Haha, she really is good here though! šŸ˜›

  7. mrheslop · · Reply

    Oh BOY did I hate this film. Hated it with a violent passion. One-star-on-Amazon hate. I agree it reduced Plath to a series of marital breakdowns (good description, by the way), though I’d go much further than that. I saw it as a soap opera which painted her as a pathetic pouting banshee. I appreciated this review because it shed light on the film and clarified some of my own views; hearing a more balanced, even opinion is always good. I love Plath’s poetry too. Thanks again, for another great review, Mr Rumsey!

    1. Thank you very much!
      That really is hating a film – was there anything in it which you liked?

      1. mrheslop · · Reply

        I liked Blythe Danner as Aurelia Plath. She gave a subtle, sincere performance, I think.

        1. Ah nice, I can’t really remember her now – it’s been a while since I saw the film!

  8. mrheslop · · Reply

    I don’t know how to edit my comment, but I’ve just remembered that you said it “ran the risk of” reducing Plath to a series of marital breakdowns, not that it did. Just thought I’d clarify that, in case you thought that I hadn’t read the view properly through my rage at the film!

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