“Sylvia” is an eloquently apprehensive and harrowing distillation of the enraptured and then estranged conjugal-poetic union between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, impressively portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig.
Happily, screenwriter John Brownlow, who is from England, and director Christine Jeffs, a New Zealander, have avoided taking sides in the lingering literary-academic feuds about who did more to cause a grave estrangement, the brooding and adulterous Hughes or the jealous and suicidal Plath. The filmmakers are content to observe a painful human trajectory.
A powerful and somewhat glamorous romantic attachment commences at Cambridge in 1956, culminating in marriage after a whirlwind courtship of four months. Then it slowly and eerily dissolves over the next seven years, culminating in Sylvia’s suicide in London in 1963.
During a “honeymoon” period in New England in the late 1950s, the partners endeavor to sustain parallel writing careers while also teaching — at Smith College in the case of Sylvia and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the case of Ted.
Professional disparities sap the morale of the young wife, whose husband remains a hard act to follow in terms of acclaim and publication. He’s also a magnet for other women under the influence of literary hero worship. The presence of an adoring coed begins to arouse suspicions of infidelity.
Although Sylvia publishes a first collection of poems, “The Colossus,” her insecurities and suspicions persist after the couple return to England in 1959. Two children are born, a daughter in 1960 and a son in 1962. A bitter separation follows in the aftermath of Sylvia’s suspicions about Ted and a married friend, Assia Wevill (Amira Casar, an exotic spellbinder in her own right).
Miss Jeffs stages an extraordinary, tension-filled dinner party at the Hughes’ cottage in Devon to illustrate Sylvia’s style of resentment and passive aggression. Perversely, the suspicions prove justified, though probably premature — they may have hastened an initially tentative attraction.
Periods of despondency and reawakened suicidal impulses (Miss Plath tried to kill herself twice in her adolescence) alternate with productive and hopeful surges, encouraged by a mutual friend, the critic A. Alvarez (Jared Harris), who resists Sylvia’s lovelorn advances by confessing his own history as a failed suicide. (He eventually wrote a book about it titled “The Savage God.”) An apparently successful attempt to vamp and reconcile with Ted proves too late to sustain.
The director has contrived a number of solitary reveries with the isolated, downcast or hallucinating Sylvia; they achieve a poignant immediacy that eludes the subject’s self-pitying or wrathful poems. As a rule, Miss Paltrow is manipulating objects of some kind: documents, hair curlers, utensils, lipstick, pills. It is peculiarly wrenching to think of someone this lovely as a lost soul. Not that we haven’t been duly warned — at one point by Blythe Danner, the star’s mother. She has two exceptional scenes as Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia, trying to take the measure of her new son-in-law while informing him about the grief that already haunts the Plath family.
Although his character gets a bit sidetracked after being banished from the Devon home, Daniel Craig brings a marvelous vocal authority to the portrayal of Ted Hughes, along with a potentially devastating Byronic allure. The filmmakers betray no awkwardness with characters who can be literary showoffs. Hughes and his Cambridge cronies, for example, like to test themselves with a recitation game in which they accelerate the tempo of Shakespearean monologues.
Miss Paltrow seems to create fresh justifications for caring about the overdocumented plight of Sylvia Plath by sustaining a vivid range of emotion, from intellectual arrogance and all-consuming passion to seething fury and all-consuming derangement. Following in the footsteps of “Iris” and “The Hours,” “Sylvia” exploits the singular beauty, delicacy and pathos of Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance to add another absorbing and sympathetic character study to the recent cycle about famous literary women.
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor, including nudity and simulated intercourse; fleeting depictions of domestic violence and frequent allusions to suicide)
CREDITS: Directed by Christine Jeffs. Written by John Brownlow. Cinematography by John Toon. Production design by Maria Dkurkovic. Costume design by Sandy Powell. Editing by Tariq Anwar. Music by Gabriel Yared
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS