- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 23, 2003

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. The real-life Plath and Hughes were supposed to have bonded sexually like oxygen and hydrogen in a water molecule, but for all the entwining of legs and arms in the movie, the Paltrow-Craig pairing throws off little passion.

This leads to the central problem of “Sylvia”: its failure to come to terms with Miss Plath’s poetry, which is, or at least ought to be, the chief reason to be interested in Miss Plath’s short, sad life. At least in “A Beautiful Mind,” the filmmakers made a genuine attempt to explain Mr. Nash’s Nobel-winning economic theories to the mathematically challenged.

Neither the Plath nor the Hughes estates cooperated with the making of Miss Jeffs’ film, so she could use only tiny “fair-use” snippets of each of the pair’s actual works, which are under copyright. We’re left with a movie about two poets that includes almost none of their poetry. We might be tempted to ask what the fuss over Sylvia Plath was all about, especially if the only thing we have read by her is “The Bell Jar,” a slight, plotless, and irritatingly self-fixated novel.

In a perceptive essay in the American Spectator in 1992, Florence King nailed Miss Plath’s problems. She was a driven perfectionist since childhood, raised by a rigid and demanding father, a German-immigrant college professor whose death when Sylvia was 8 left her feeling permanently abandoned. Miss Plath burned with ambition and jealousy. The famous Mr. Hughes himself was a kind of prize for her, an outward sign of her own literary and sexual success, but also a rival. At the same time, as Miss King noted, Miss Plath was a cosseted perpetual teacher’s pet who could not adjust to the real world of unfulfilling jobs, writer’s rejection slips, and scant reviews for “The Colossus,” the only book of poems she published in her lifetime.

Nonetheless, Sylvia Plath was a powerful poet who was literally her own worst enemy. Her second, posthumous book of poems, “Ariel,” written out of the fury and pain of her last months, after Mr. Hughes had left her, is a series of white-hot brands that burn into the reader’s mind: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air.”

One line from her poem “Daddy” in that book has already achieved cultural-literacy status: “Every woman adores a fascist.” It is a drumroll of fascination with the unspeakable in human nature. Instead of living to ripen her art, however, Miss Plath became a model for a line of otherwise talented female poets who concentrated their vatic energies on the pinpoints of their own sufferings at the hands of parents and lovers. Anne Sexton, who killed herself in 1974, was Miss Plath’s unfortunate epigone.

My favorite character in the movie “Sylvia” was Miss Plath’s mother, Aurelia, played by Miss Paltrow’s own mother, Blythe Danner. Aurelia Plath was supposed to be a control-freak Mommy Dearest, but here she comes across mainly as shrewd and hardheaded. She sees right through the poetic pretensions of both her daughter and the feckless Mr. Hughes. “Take care of her,” she tells Mr. Hughes. His crime, if any, was that he didn’t.

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