C omplaining that a biopic of Sylvia Plath is oppressively bleak is like complaining that a steam room is oppressively moist. Bleakness, it may be argued, is the whole damn point, and it obviously did oppress Plath, who in her last months was probably happiest when fantasizing about her own suicide. * (The act was successfully carried out in 1963.) That said, there is something uncomfortably voluptuous about the bleakness of the new film Sylvia (Focus Features), directed by Christine Jeffs from a script by John Brownlow: those lowering English skies, those histrionic strings (by Gabriel Yared), those howling winds on the soundtrack for most of the grueling last half-hour. The movie opens with the horizontal head of Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) while her voice recites some famous lines from “Lady Lazarus”: “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.” The head opens its eyes and stares into the camera, there’s a fade-out, and then a bent tree sits in the middle of the screen, its leaves blowing off in a single gust. Less than a minute into the movie, I was already thinking, “This is too Sylvia Plath for words.” It’s Bleak Chic.
The film was originally called Ted and Sylvia and ought to have kept that title: The story begins with Plath meeting Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) at a Cambridge literary soiree and being thunderstruck by his “black marauder” handsomeness; and it more or less ends with her thunderstruck again, this time by the news that he’s going to have a child with his lover, Assia Wevill. Brownlow has said that he wrote the script with Edward Albee in mind and even referred to it as Who’s Afraid of Sylvia Plath? But he also said he spent a lot of time paring the dialogue down to the bone. That might be the trouble right there: If Albee’s play holds up, it’s not because of its Walpurgisnacht pretensions and dated dead-child metaphors; it’s because it’s a great bitchy, garrulous black comedy in which the husband and wife are genuinely out for each other’s blood. Brownlow and Jeffs are too respectful of Plath and Hughes to turn the couple’s scrapping into a boisterous drag show.
Paltrow does an English accent very well, better than most American actors. It’s odd to watch her play an American among Brits and not be allowed to partake in those pear-shaped vowels. (At times I could feel her diction edging into BBC territory—but maybe the real Plath sounded the same.) The performance has a lot of dreary integrity: Her Sylvia is every bit as brittle and crazy as some have described the poet in life—only minus the wit. And her poetry—where she transformed that craziness into art—stays locked in her head. (The Plath-Hughes estate refused to give the producers the rights to her poems. With a vengeance.) In the first half of the film, Plath is overshadowed by Hughes, hits a dry spell, and spends most of her free time baking. (“I’m dried up. I have nothing to say. I’m not a writer and never will be. … You go for a bike ride and come back with an epic in hexameters. I sit down to write and have a bake sale.”) A few scenes later, she’s having a party for the publication of The Colossus: What happened in between? Where were the moments of pleasure and fulfillment? Not at her Colossus party: It ends with an inadvertent but devastating snub by London’s most powerful poetry critic. Take that, you Yankee poseur.
Sylvia has its grace notes—especially from Michael Gambon as Plath’s downstairs neighbor, who clearly knows she should be hospitalized but doesn’t, out of politeness, convey this very forcefully. Craig finds an affecting middle ground between caddishness and conscience—the balance is all the more remarkable because people argue over the proportions of each in Hughes today, five years after his death. But Sylvia is frustratingly anemic, the filmmakers hiding behind their good taste and sensitivity. They might as well have gone for broke, since Plath and Hughes’ daughter accused them of monstrous exploitation anyway. She wrote a poem that climaxes: “They think I should give them my mother’s words/ To fill the mouth of their monster/ Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.”
It’s a shame that Plath’s work—and her biopic—must be framed by that suicide, as if the life itself were less interesting than the leaving of it. When Nirvana first broke out, Greil Marcus said they sounded as if they’d just managed to crawl out of bed and pick up their heavy guitars and overcome their despair long enough to record. To me, those songs weren’t the same after Kurt Cobain blew his brains out: They were more exhilarating when I knew that he was still among us, fighting it out with his demons. (The same is true of Elliott Smith.) Plath’s poetry is more moving if you imagine a world in which she didn’t kill herself; and a movie that begins with her fetishizing her own death is like a forced march to the gallows. It’s also undramatic—it takes Plath too much on her own terms. I was offended by the shot of Paltrow when she turns on the gas and is bathed in white light, radiantly transfigured in her final moments. Her daughter is right: The movie is about a suicide doll. You pull the string and it says, “Dying is an art. … Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through. … Dying is an art …”
Update, Oct. 27, 2003:The first line originally contained the word sauna instead of steam room. My thanks to those scores of readers who wrote to say that a sauna is by definition dry heat. Clearly, I have more experience with similes than I do with saunas. (Return to the first paragraph.)