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You’d hardly know that Sylvia Plath was a celebrated poet from Christine Jeffs’s cheerless, claustrophobic bio-pic; she seems just another depressive woman with a cheating husband who plunges into despair, madness, and death. To make such a film is not a negligible accomplishment: backed by Gwyneth Paltrow’s uncompromising if unenlightening performance as Plath and Daniel Craig’s as the brilliant but ultimately craven Ted Hughes, Plath’s faithless husband and future British Poet Laureate, Jeffs compiles some harrowing scenes from a marriage. Her sense of time and place — the stifling furnishings and clothes of pre-Kennedy-era America, the sooty cold and ugly wallpaper of the kitchen-sink England of the early ’60s — evokes a convincing sense of oppression. Yet if the suffering comes through loud and clear, the exaltation that engendered the poetry doesn’t — in one scene Plath sits idly at a typewriter and then heads to the kitchen to bake a cake for her undeserving spouse. The closest to a moment of reverie occurs when Sylvia and Ted punt down the Cam and she declaims Chaucer to the bewildered cows on the river bank.

Instead of poetry, paranoia gets full play: at one dreadful dinner party, Plath accosts the couple who are their guests and accuses the woman of having an affair with her husband. Paltrow conveys the meltdown with almost comic flair. Plath’s dotty, you think; then it turns out she was right. It’s only when the film leaves her point of view and follows Hughes to a liaison that her vision is vindicated. Otherwise, Sylvia provides scant illumination, only a terrifying, inexorable dimming of the light.

Issue Date: October 24 - 30, 2003
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