Sylvia; No Poetic Justice in Biopic of Plath

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Sylvia; No Poetic Justice in Biopic of Plath


Byline: Charlotte Allen, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

I admit it. I expected worse from "Sylvia," Christine Jeffs' earnest new movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the American poet-turned-suicide Sylvia Plath. For more than three decades, radical feminists issued death threats and called for the dismemberment of Miss Plath's British poet-husband, Ted Hughes, from whom she was estranged when she put her head in the kitchen oven of her London flat and gassed herself at age 30 in the winter of 1963, leaving behind two small children.

The rad-fems cast Mr. Hughes, who died in 1998, as the ultimate masculine villain: selfish, priapic (an affair with a fellow poet's wife led to the split with Miss Plath), domineering, demanding, and narcissistic. Robin Morgan, former editor of Ms. magazine and author of the famous screed "Sisterhood Is Powerful," set the gold standard for this sort of thing in a 1972 poem: "[W]e women [will] blow out his brains."

Other feminists periodically hacked Miss Plath's married name off her tombstone and heckled Mr. Hughes at his readings as a murderer. The oven. The children. The symbolism. Mr. Hughes had committed the ultimate male crime of forcing a poetic genius to become a housewife and mother. For nearly every young woman my age, "The Bell Jar," Miss Plath's autobiographical novel about her earlier suicide attempt during her summer vacation from Smith College, was required reading.

Mercifully, the movie "Sylvia" does not take the Robin Morgan line. This is in part because fashionable attitudes toward female suicide have changed since Ms. magazine's heyday, when death, like everything else, was all men's fault. Furthermore, the recent publication of several biographies of Miss Plath, together with her own unabridged journals and a series of poems by Mr. Hughes just before his death in which he broke his long silence about his wife, tell a more complicated tale than the martyrological sob story of the feminists.

The film depicts Miss Plath (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) as a victim, alright, but the villain is not Mr. Hughes (Daniel Craig). It is mental illness.

Through Miss Jeffs' sympathetic eyes, we watch Miss Plath slowly - all too slowly, in fact - disintegrate into paranoia and clinical depression in the shabby London digs and the isolated Devonshire cottage where she tries to eke out a poetic life and also keep house and raise children, all the while frantically calling for help from friends, colleagues, and neighbors who can't stop her downward spiral.

We already know the ending, so the only suspense in the film consists of wondering whether Miss Plath will do it when the children are in the apartment. Perhaps we viewers are supposed to think: Too bad they hadn't invented Prozac back then. Or: Shouldn't Britain's National Health Service have covered some of this?

"Sylvia," in short, is "A Beautiful Mind," with poetry substituted for math. Instead of etching equations onto the windowpane like John Nash, Miss Paltrow's Plath scribbles, pounds the keys of her Royal, and in frustrated rage, tears her unsatisfactory attempts into tiny pieces, when she is not tearing up or burning Mr. Hughes' poems and correspondence in fits of jealousy.

The hollow-eyed, dark-shirted Daniel Craig, for his part, plays Mr. Hughes as Dylan Thomas, a central-casting Brit poetical genius who hits the bottle often (here, mostly wine) but not the bathtub. …

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