What can we learn from this film – a film about the life and self-inflicted death of legendary American poet, Sylvia Plath? Sadly, about as much as reading the introduction to an anthology of her work.
That’s not to say “Sylvia,” from New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs, is not heartfelt and emotionally involving. Rather, it’s quite gripping in some moments. Sadly, this pathos is only due to the brutal arguments and emotional breakdowns into which Plath, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, regularly descends.
Plath’s early life and inner thoughts – specifically those responsible for her suicide attempts – might not be well documented in history books, but we do have her poetry. And that should be all you need to create a visceral, multifaceted portrait of a great poet’s life.
Unfortunately, what Plath gets here is only a surface treatment, although she deserves something much more cerebral. Read her poem “Lady Lazarus.” The film opens with one of its most memorable lines: “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.” That poem, a portal into Plath’s mind, is rife with dense imagery that allow multiple readings. But “Sylvia” fails to transcribe the mental fortitude of her work. Instead, the film gives us her body. We follow Plath through the last years of her short adult life; her failed marriage to poet Ted Hughes and her eventual suicide in 1963, when she was just 30 years old. And it’s all exterior and obvious. We are shown the things that made her happy – her children, her husband – and the things that made her sad – the bad reviews, the adultery.
There’s nothing really tangible here, nothing that really speaks to why she wrote the way she did and why she chose to leave her two children without a mother.
Whether you’re an admirer of Plath or not, there is a curious scene in “Sylvia” that summarizes the overall feeling of the film.
Early in their courtship, Plath and Hughes are floating down an English river in a small boat. They are volleying poetry back and forth to each other when they come upon a herd of cattle on the embankment. As they float by, Plath hurls some Chaucer at the bemused, white cows. They respond with moans and stare stupidly at her.
While “Sylvia” does provide us with some exquisite photography and a tinge of Plath’s poetry – spoken eloquently in a career-performance from Paltrow – the complexities of an artist who would rather die than go on making art are untouched.
So as it would seem, we are the unengaged white cows standing motionless as “Sylvia” floats by, saying very little about an American artist who had so much to say.