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Sylvia Poster
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Story of the relationship between the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Release Date:October 17, 2003
MPAA Rating:R
Genres:Drama, Romance
Production Co.:Focus Films
Production Countries:United Kingdom
Director:Christine Jeffs
Casts:, , , , , , , , , , , ,
Plot Keywords:beach, infidelity, boat, writing, biography, poet, love, snow, drinking, woman director

Sylvia Reviews

  • OK bio but misses some of the spirit of the subject
    by Roland E. Zwick ( on 22 November 2004

    57 out of 59 people found the following review useful:

    What is it about an artist dying young - particularly if it is at his or her own hands - that strikes such a deep chord in so many of us? Is it the fact that this rare and special person achieves a kind of mastery of fate at the last moment, a perfect conclusion to this messy business of life that we mere mortals can never hope to attain? Could it be that this early death is just one more instance of an artist taking the elements of raw reality and transforming them into something stylized, transcendent and meaningful for the rest of us to brood over and contemplate? When poet and novelist Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963, she became the archetype of the tortured artist - particularly for sensitive young people who came to romanticize her end and her suffering in ways that lifted her and her work to iconic status.

    The biopic, entitled simply 'Sylvia,' gets the 'tortured' part pretty much right, but has considerably less success with the 'artist.'

    The film focuses mainly on the tumultuous relationship between Plath and her husband of eight years, famed poet Ted Hughes. The story begins in 1956 with their love-at-first-sight meeting when they were both students at Cambridge University. The film moves quickly through the years, showing how, after a short period of relative marital bliss, Ted's philandering began to take its toll on the relationship. As portrayed in the movie, Sylvia, despite her notable talent, is a mass of neuroses and insecurities, always toiling in the shadows of her (initially at least) much more well known and commercially successful husband. But her feelings of inadequacy and jealousy over Ted's infidelities cannot, in and of themselves, entirely account for her paranoia, her outbursts of anger and her suicidal tendencies. Those resulted mainly from the clinical depression that tormented the woman from the time of her father's death early in her childhood to her own tragic end. The movie sidesteps the electroshock therapy Plath underwent at various times in her life (though it very subtly hints at them), yet the film still manages to convey just how great a victim she was of this disease she could not overcome.

    Thanks to John Brownlow's rather singlemindedly depressing screenplay, there's a tremendous feeling of sadness hovering over the film. Director Christine Jeffs brings a raw intensity to many of the confrontation scenes involving the pain-wracked, benighted couple. As Sylvia and Ted, Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig give rich, moving and sensitive performances, and Michael Gambon leaves his mark as a sympathetic neighbor who tries but does not succeed at saving Sylvia.

    If there is a flaw in 'Sylvia,' it is one common to films that attempt to portray the lives of artists, particularly writers. Although a scenarist can dramatize the details of an artist's life, it is virtually impossible for him to capture the richness and power of the art itself in the different medium of film. We never get the sense of how Sylvia either overcomes the difficulties of her life to succeed in her writing or how she uses those difficulties to enhance her art. What we do get is a few shots of Sylvia sitting in front of a typewriter, a comment or two about a book that has been or is soon to be published, a few references to critical reviews, and a smattering of voice-over recitations of Plath's poetry. What we don't get and what it is virtually impossible for film to capture is the essence of the writing itself. For this, one needs to return to the source material, the works that have lived on after the woman herself all these years. If the movie inspires new people to explore Sylvia Plath's writing, it will not have been in vain

  • Patchy
    by Classybird on 17 November 2003

    50 out of 53 people found the following review useful:

    I am pretty familiar with Plath's story, and am also a keen fan of her work, which i think contributed to my hesitancy in seeing the film. I did not have high hopes for this film at all, and honestly, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised.

    My main criticisms:

    I found it hard to get past the whole 'Oooh look it's Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath'. Someone who isn't famous on a global scale would have been more credible.

    The whole premise of the film hinges on the deep passionate relationship of Plath and Hughes, yet I never really felt convinced by it. The relationship came across as quite two dimensional, and even pretty one sided on the part of Paltrow/Plath. Instead of being portrayed as an emotionally fragile woman driven to the edge by Hughes' constant philandering and ultimate betrayal, Plath actually seemed to come across as being deeply insecure and neurotic, constantly suffering from extreme PMT, and overreacting every time she saw Hughes even talking to another woman, rather than having genuine reason to suspect his infidelity.

    There were a couple of key dramatic moments (such as after they have made love for the first time, and when they are out in the boat together) that felt very hammy, so disrupted the momentum of the piece.

    The score is just awful. Totally totally overwrought, over the top, too loud and too much of it. Plus, as Paltrow/Plath really starts to lose her mind there is an almost constant sound of howling wind in the backgroud. Again, OTT. Less definitely would have been more.


    Ok, I complained about Paltrow above, but she really did a great job. She really is a very talented actress, and it is a shame the whole celebrity thing gets in the way. She was particularly fine in the latter stages of the film, and the sad descent into loneliness and irreversible depression was very well judged.

    Likewise, Daniel Craig was very enigmatic, although I wonder whether the one sidedness of the relationship as mentioned above may have come from him.

    As a whole the film was very sympathetic, and showed how hard it must have been for Hughes to live with Plath. It doesn't justify his behaviour but rather tries to show an understanding. It also evokes a sense of a time when poets were considered important.

    This film stayed with me for some days after watching it, and I would recommend it. It is somewhat uneven in pace and direction, but I think Christine Jeffs is a director with talent, although her inexperience showed. But above all, it renewed my interest in both Plath and Hughes.


  • A Hijacked Life and an Insightful Biopic
    by Ralph Michael Stein ( on 19 October 2003

    43 out of 47 people found the following review useful:

    Film biographies of cultural figures - art, music, literature - differ from those focused on great events and the men and women who either led others or contributed to the hallmarks of history. For a start, figures in the arts have nowhere near the broad drawing power of, say, a General Patton whose controversial larger than life war record is placed in a setting where there are many other important figures, all engaged in very documented and perennially debated actions.

    In 1998, "Hilary and Jackie" explored alleged episodes in the short life of cellist Jacqueline Du Pre and her pianist, now also conductor, husband, Daniel Barenboim. Despite very very good acting the film was largely a descent into the basement of scurrilous storytelling by relatives of the dead musician. Whatever the truth of the claim that she bedded her sister's husband, the movie said nothing about the couple's meteorically brilliant early careers. It was slanted voyeurism writ large.

    Director Christine Wells has taken a very different and insightful tack in exploring the life of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, a poet with laurels garnered while Ms. Plath was still starting up a not very steady ladder to recognition.

    Plath, an American, met Hughes in England. A short courtship was followed by marriage and then two children. The relationship was tumultuous and eventually it foundered because of Sylvia's underlying emotional instability followed by her husband's desertion to another woman.

    Sylvia had tried suicide at least once before meeting Hughes and she succeeded in 1963, not that many years after they met. Whatever fame she achieved in her life has been eclipsed by what can only be described as a cottage industry of people studying her relationship with Hughes, an activity more important to some than her very fine poems and her most famous book, a novel, "The Bell Jar." In short, the real Sylvia Plath, whoever she was, has been hijacked.

    Wells takes a sympathetic view of Ted and Sylvia, not joining in the political debate over feminism and Sylvia's supposed maltreatment by Ted. Sylvia in this film is brilliant but also terribly brittle and her inner demons are not caused by a brutish or callous husband. As Platrow portrays her, I believe accurately, Sylvia was seriously and chronically depressed with life events worsening but in no regard initiating a downward spiral. Today she would probably thrive and be both prolific as a poet and happy as a person if successfully maintained on an effective anti-depressant.

    Ted, played by Daniel Craig, is a bit transparent - loving but somewhat distanced by his own quest for fame. He hectors Sylvia to write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse while on a seaside vacation. He's supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help, not critical comments about non-productivity.

    The supporting cast is fine but this is Paltrow and Craig's film. She has a strong affinity for England and its culture (I believe she has moved there) and she gives the role deep conviction and understanding. It happens that she somewhat resembles Sylvia but the true recognition is internal and intellectual. And emotional, let's not omit that.

    Hughes essentially inherited his wife's estate and there's no question that he, like Daniel Barenboim after Jacqueline Du Pre's death, received a mixed blessing. He superintended the posthumous publication of "Ariel," one of Sylvia's most enduring legacies. A man who only wanted to be a first-rate poet, he became (and still is post mortem) the subject of arguments as to his treatment of Sylvia and his responsibility for her taking her life.

    "Sylvia" sets the record straight as Paltrow acts the part of a woman - mother as well as poet - who slowly loses control of her life while her husband reacts first with confusion and later with the self-protective armor of withdrawal.

    Hughes went on to publish many fine poems and he became poet laureate of England, a post he definitely wanted and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).

    Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published "Birthday Letters," an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia or a last record - and chance - to give his side, it's an impressive work. And "Ariel's Gift" by Erica Wagner is must reading for those who want more than a film and sometimes potted articles can provide. It analyzes the poets' relationship through the prism of Hughes's writings, most unpublished before "Birthday Letters." A recent book, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," by Diane Middlebrook, is also recommended.

    Incidentally, the film accurately shows Sylvia's suicide preparations which included putting breakfast next to her little kids' beds before opening their window wide and sealing their door so the gas she employed to dispatch herself wouldn't harm them. I've read articles where her adulators remark on this as evidence of her loving and solicitous nature. Rubbish. The gas supplied at that time would have blown the whole building sky high if anyone, through ringing a doorbell or smoking a cigarette, had introduced a spark into her flat. Anyone surviving such a suicide attempt under those facts would surely be prosecuted today.

    The film score is very intrusive, signaling when important things are happening. The dialogue and Paltrow and Craig's faces do that very well.


  • Start From the Beginning.
    by loveandrevolutions on 5 August 2004

    36 out of 45 people found the following review useful:

    When I rented this movie, I thought it would be about Sylvia's entire life, or at least starting from her days at Smith College. I didn't realize that her marriage with Ted Hughes would be the entire storyline. I think this movie would've been better had they shown more about Plath's life BEFORE Ted Hughes. For people who don't really know much about Plath and her poetry, understanding her life before Hughes would've made the film much more substantial. The audience has to realize that Plath led a very, very hard mental life even before she met Hughes, and her ideas for her poetry and 'The Bell Jar' mostly originated from her bachelorette days. She never recovered from her depression as a young woman and it branched out still as she married Hughes. Without understanding Plath from the beginning hinders the audience from understanding Plath at all.

    I feel like the movie only told half the story. Plath's mind was beautiful, colorful, and brilliant. It wasn't just about the jealousy, depression, and paranoia. Putting her works on the back burner really took away most of this movie. I would've liked to see more narration by Plath and giving us an insight into her mind, the way her unabridged journals do. However, I really enjoyed the dialogue of this movie; the lines were poetic and beautiful.

    Unfortunately, I am still waiting for a better Sylvia Plath movie. I recommend people to read 'The Bell Jar' and 'Ariel' before or after seeing this movie though.

  • A Dull Take on Plath-as-Zombie
    by augustdane on 12 November 2003

    22 out of 23 people found the following review useful:

    ***SPOILERS*** ***SPOILERS*** After being forewarned by the teenager selling tickets to "Sylvia"--"I hope you like 'depressing', 'cause this is REALLY depressing" ("Oh, I do, I do," I reassured him)--I spent the next 2 hours completely alone in the theater, which was somehow appropriate...

    Paltrow was competent, Daniel Craig as Ted was appropriately brooding and charismatic. That said, I found the film to be little more than a series of mainly gloomy vignettes rather than a more accurately energetic glimpse into her actual life.

    From everything I've read about Plath (all of her works, plus over 10 critical and/or biographical books), the woman was a crackling force of both manic and depressive energy--this film, on the other hand, almost completely ignores the manic life (and death) force in favor of a pervasive listlessness. Even the scenes that we know from Plath's journals happened in real-life are dulled-down here: Plath's bang-smash account of her sexually-charged initial meeting with Hughes, for instance, which we know resulted in tooth-marks on Hughes' face and his snatching her hair-band, is rendered as little more than a fairly polite dance and kiss in the movie--you get little sense of the urgency and excitement of their attraction. Another scene, rendered far more cinematically in Plath's journals and in Hughes' poem "Chaucer", is her enchantment of the local cows with her recitation of The Wife of Bath's Tale---in reality, the cows apparently gathered around her as she spoke, entranced by her voice, and Ted had to literally drive them away. When I read THEIR accounts, I could feel the magic of the odd situation; in the movie, though, Plath speaks a few lines to watching cows as she and Ted row past them on the river. Ho-hum.

    While the two lived in Boston, Plath not only taught at Smith, but later entered weekly analysis, worked at a local mental hospital because Ted wouldn't get a job, and hung out with fellow poets at Lowell's weekly workshop, then got drunk with Anne Sexton, for one, afterwards. Again, that's all pretty darn cinematic; but in the movie, the Boston life consists primarily of a few seconds of Plath droning on before a class or two, then a scene of women gathering around Hughes after a reading. Yes, they do have a fight after Sylvia asks Ted if he f***ed (the movie's word) one woman; but her own written account of the scene was rather wild, with thrown glasses, her "getting hit" and seeing stars, etc., rather than the bland conversational incarnation of the incident that shows up here.

    In London and Devon, too: In actuality, up 'til near the end, Plath was constantly in motion: setting up households, sending their work out, going to literary events, having babies, entertaining a myriad of friends and family and neighbors. Dido Merwin and Olwyn Hughes have both left testaments to Sylvia's sometime-hostility on occasion; Plath's own friends have left warmer accounts. Whatever the case, she was interacting with others, for better and worse, and much more interestingly than in this movie, wherein she mainly mopes around the house in a series of grim solitary poses. (PLEASE, I feel like begging, show her getting mad at Olwyn for smoking, or angrily striding out onto the moors after an argument at Ted's family's house, or yelling at Ted about the damn rabbit traps or his Ouija-predicted fame, or expressing her frustration at her mother's annoying visit. ANYTHING to portray an interesting, REAL person and to relieve the monotony of all the pseudo-artsy posing that goes on in the film.)

    In short, this movie sucks every bit of life out of Plath, portraying her as a zombie-like character almost from the get-go, when in fact we know from reading her own words that there was actually a thinking, feeling, LIVING person on the premises up until the very end.

  • Prettified and superficial biography
    by Amund Hesbøl on 20 December 2004

    27 out of 37 people found the following review useful:

    Rather dull and uninspired biography, even though Gwyneth does a good performance, she's unable to save a biography which probably will make your own life look exciting - Sylvia Plath is portrayed as not much more than a quite ordinary housewife that is cheated on over several years. The affairs of her husband Ted takes its toll, of course, and quite predictably drives her paranoia, but really; this is not film material. Ted Hughes comes across as a lame, rather brutal husband with little understanding of Sylvias troubled mind. Their story is told very straightforward and linear, probably wrong since there is very little story to begin with. A more adventurous structure, with glimpses of childhood, early years, etc might have added much needed lyricism to this lackluster project.

  • More kitchen sink melodrama than famous poet biopic
    by Chris_Docker on 2 February 2004

    23 out of 30 people found the following review useful:

    What makes poetry a special art form? Answers might include bringing together extremes of joy and despair within a couple of lines, offering an alternative to rational thought, enriching our outlook and understanding in ways that prose would struggle to equal. Poetry can provide a single phrase or sentence that is easily remembered and somehow unlocks difficult-to-express inner states, just as a song can (and poetry is the basis of songs). It offers a freedom of expression where you don't need to explain every aspect of what you are saying - it urges the listener to grasp a semi-spoken truth or idea.

    That's my rough guess. I've got over 40 books of poetry on my bookshelf at the last count, yet I'm no literary expert and appreciate poetry in a very simple way. Most people might agree that poetry offers something special, so a film celebrating the life of a famous poet might be expected to bring us a glimmer of that something.

    Sylvia Plath has been championed not only as a poet but as a sort of ‘feminist' – a cry on behalf of women treated as a commodity, subjugated by an unfair male-dominated system. Cast in the lead role, Gwyneth Paltrow's Plath focuses much attention on how downtrodden she was, chained to two children, overshadowed by a brilliant and celebrated Ted Hughes, struggling with bitterness, jealousy, mental instability and a less than attractive persona. We also get the occasional poetic outburst, from who-can-recite-poetry-fastest undergrad shenanigans to romanticised performances of Chaucer (addressed to an audience of watching cows whilst floating downstream in a boat). All punctuated with soft-focus shots of a naked Plath/Paltrow, hysterical and often violent outbursts at Hughes, and scenes of a generally uninteresting and uninspiring life of moderate wretchedness. The only thing that distinguishes Sylvia from the now-unfashionable kitchen sink drama is that its central character is called Sylvia Plath.

    So is the film worthy of the title? In A Beautiful Mind, we learnt of the joy of mathematics, Lunzhin Defence championed the addictive mysteries of chess, and Dead Poets Society made us lift our eyes to literary horizons that could inspire the dullest of minds. Sylvia was limited, perhaps, by the refusal of her daughter to allow much of Plath's poetry to be used in the film but, for whatever reason, it has failed to be more than a rather humdrum biopic. It offers little insight into her poetry or the magic of poetry generally, and adds little of interest about the historical figure that doesn't apply to millions of women. If any deep philosophical statement can be drawn from this, the film certainly doesn't make it, poetically or otherwise. Sadly, it would seem that the words of Sylvia Plath's daughter almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy: "Now they want to make a film . .. They think I should give them my mother's words . . . To fill the mouth of their monster . . . Their Sylvia Suicide Doll." Whilst not quite an empty doll, Sylvia is maybe an arm or leg short of a manikin.

  • Life imitating art... or just art?
    by just-me on 12 November 2003

    11 out of 12 people found the following review useful:

    So intense ... Ms. Paltrow does not let your eye leave her from the moment she enters the frame... moment by moment she projects her feelings thoughts... almost painful to watch at times... you almost feel like you are watching Paltrow herself unravel on screen (boat on the ocean. I love Plath and I love Paltrow as Plath... she is heartbreaking and haunting just like the poetry the real Sylvia wrote. She unlike most actresses becomes a character and she became Sylvia Plath.

  • Frustrated Poetess on the Cusp of "The Feminine Mystique"
    by noralee on 27 November 2003

    17 out of 24 people found the following review useful:

    "Sylvia" is not quite just a slow, straightforward bio-pic of poet Sylvia Plath. While screenwriter John Brownlow has a long background in TV documentaries, director Christine Jeffs has previously made a young woman's mental disquiet dreamily visual in the superb New Zealand film "Rain."

    She has her "Rain" cinematographer John Toon bathe the entire film in a nostalgia-tinged amber glow, like the extended flashbacks to the young lovers in the Australian film "Innocence." I think the point is to determinedly place Plath and her husband poet Ted Hughes into their specific time at the cusp before "The Feminine Mystique" put a name to Plath's frustrations and contradictions as a Fulbright scholar - experimental poet turned wife and mother who ultimately turned on herself. ("Mona Lisa's Smile" with Julia Roberts will evidently be dealing with a parallel time and place in a much more Hollywood interpretation.)

    As played alternatively languid and aggressive by Gwyneth Paltrow and a Byronic Daniel Craig, they are an actively sensual couple, but notably not Bohemian. They are part of an intellectual but not counter-cultural set. While they are competing for editors' accolades and print space, she's setting her hair, arranging her pearls and cleaning house, like a proper Smith graduate of the time who is perfectly at home visiting her Boston mother (played by real-life mom Blythe Danner) and amidst the books of her late bee scholar father (My friend the PhD in English tells me that the original film title of "The Bee-Keeper's Daughter" would have been fraught with much more significance about Plath's obsessions.)

    Hughes celebrates his first big break by asking her to marry him and kids follow one after the other; when they need money he looks to write a children's series for the BBC. Yes, she gets more and more difficult and paranoid, but he is having affairs (and another child) as he attracts more fawning women acolytes.

    An earlier suicide effort is referenced a couple of times yet her increasingly heightened mental imbalance as shown here could be post-partum depressions or a Laingian response that insanity is the only rational response to an insane, unfair world. (The film does not seem to side with her loyalist cult which Margaret Atwood satirizes in "The Blind Assassin").

    It is always difficult to show a writer at work, but I would have liked to hear more of her poetry than a few passing sentences.

    Gabriel Yared's music is lovely and unsentimental.

  • fairly good and entertaining
    by scarletssister on 3 February 2005

    19 out of 31 people found the following review useful:

    After viewing the film on Sylvia Plath, I felt a need to read about this poet and find out exactly what Hollywood did with it. As usual, Hollywood transformed a person's life into what an audience would want to be amused by. Mr. Hughes is personified as a womanizer and adulterer, the later of which may be true. After reading two biographies of Ms. Plath by Linda W. Wagner-Martin and Anne Stevenson and of course having studied Ms. Plath's poetry, I feel that the film, albeit entertaining does not depict her actual identity. It does a marginal account of her life, or part of her life. As any human being, Ms. Plath suffered from many demons. If you ascribe to an astrological standpoint (as Mr. and Mrs. Hughes did) you will find that Sylvia was doomed by her astrological sign, Scorpio. Those of you who are Scorpios know that there is a dark side to this sign. She set her expectations too high of most things and considered the failure of loyalty from her friends and family detrimental. Her experiences with depression only added fuel to the flame. Had she lived in modern times, maybe the newer therapies could have helped her. Depression is a severe affliction and may make a great poet, but for everyday living it can render a person helpless. It can make one helpless with dealing with marriage and children, life in general, and one's occupation. Sylvia Plath was a victim of her depression, her personality overreacting to life and her relationships. Unfortunately, she could not work her way through her inner problems and suffered the result of her mental blockage. Fortunately, for her children, they were unharmed by her mental illness and subsequent actions, and were eventually raised by their father. No one is to blame... no one is superhuman. If standards are set too high for anyone, as Sylvia set for herself, anyone is doomed to failure. We do have her poetry and novel(s) to see her inner self, which no film can properly depict.

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