Talented Writers with Troubled Lives

By David Sterritt Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

Talented Writers with Troubled Lives


David Sterritt Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Last year was a good one for movies about gifted women, with figures ranging from Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman in "The Hours") to contemporary writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep in "Adaptation") on the wide screen.

This year is starting to look equally strong for women - and I'm not talking about "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," although Quentin Tarantino's choice of Uma Thurman as the world's toughest warrior does bear out the theme.

Like the 2002 movies I've mentioned, this week's contributions center on talented writers with troubled lives, although in other ways "Sylvia" and "Veronica Guerin" are very different.

Playing a great poet

I was skeptical about "Sylvia" from the moment I heard Gwyneth Paltrow was slated to play the great American poet, who wrote a fiercely concentrated body of brilliant verse (some of it published in this newspaper) before taking her life at age 30 in 1963.

I wasn't all that impressed with Ms. Paltrow's literary turns in "Shakespeare in Love" and "Possession," and I thought she'd be too, well, cute to convincingly portray Plath, whose melancholy beauty has intrigued me since I first saw Rollie McKenna's famous photograph of her years ago. How smart Plath looks in that photo, but also so sad - not a quality I immediately link with Paltrow.

My forebodings were exaggerated. Paltrow's performance in "Sylvia" doesn't have Oscar- worthy depth, but it's a solid, sincere portrayal that captures enough sides of Plath's complex personality to enrich the movie, directed with impressive visual power by New Zealand filmmaker Christine Jeffs.

In typical biopic style, "Sylvia" doesn't chronicle Plath's entire life. It begins with her days as an American student at Cambridge University in England, where she meets Ted Hughes, her future husband and (after her death) the British poet laureate.

Hughes stayed silent about his intimate knowledge of Plath until publishing "The Birthday Letters," his final book of poems, a year before his passing in 1998.

Many have imputed Plath's unhappiness to Hughes, often stressing his extramarital affair with a woman they both knew.

While the movie tries to be fair about this, letting us know her suicide attempts began long before she met him, it still leaves the impression that Hughes's insensitivity was the ultimate culprit.

In other ways, too, the film is far from complete. Plath's struggle with insanity is sketchily given, and her several hospitalizations for this are omitted. …

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