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
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. …