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"The woman is perfect" 

Paltrow shines as haunted poet

click to enlarge Gwyneth Paltrow gives an impeccable performance as Sylvia Plath.
  • Gwyneth Paltrow gives an impeccable performance as Sylvia Plath.

*Sylvia (R)
Focus Films

Dying is an art, like everything else/ I do it exceptionally well," wrote Sylvia Plath -- author of The Colossus, The Bell Jar, and Ariel -- in the poem "Lady Lazarus." These words, composed shortly before Plath's suicide in 1963 might just as well apply to Gwyneth Paltrow's seamless portrayal of Plath in Sylvia -- a remarkably subtle cinematic examination of her relationship with British poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig).

The result of years of research and a close collaboration between producer Alison Owen, writer John Brownlow and director Christine Jeffs, Sylvia succeeds where most biopics fail; instead of doggedly attempting to chronicle the "facts" of Plath's life, it chooses a few pivotal periods and allows the actors to breathe and develop within them.

The story begins with the couple's star-crossed meeting at a literary party in 1954 when Plath was studying at Oxford on a Fulbright Scholarship. Plath confronts Hughes, who has just given Sylvia's poems a bad review in the Oxford magazine, and they are instantly smitten. The two then proceed to do what you'd expect all young, overly romantic confessional poets to do: endlessly gaze into each other's eyes and cornily recite poetry to one another.

Married just four months later, they travel to the United States so Sylvia can take a teaching position at Smith College, her alma mater. But Ted's early fame and recognition quickly begin to strain their relationship. While Ted writes, publishes, lectures and enjoys the attention of young ladies, Sylvia teaches, bakes and finds it nearly impossible to be taken seriously as a woman writer.

While summering on the Massachusetts coast, the future of Ted and Sylvia's relationship is ominously foreshadowed as they are dragged out to sea by an unseen tide in a tiny white rowboat. Like many scenes, this particular moment was culled from Birthday Letters (from the poem "Flounders"), the book of poems about their relationship that Hughes published shortly before his death in 1998. Such poem-moments add to the unstrained emotional verity of Ted and Sylvia's on-screen characters and allow the film to stray elegantly away from the conventions and constraints of plot.

Shortly after the boat incident, Plath and Hughes move back to England and a succession of various tiny, lumpy-walled apartments and cottages, and the film darkens into shadowy greens, navies and browns. Along with the dark palette, the repetitive appearance of boxes, squares, bricks, window frames and cramped interior shots begin to create a backdrop of visual claustrophobia that heightens Plath's emotional disintegration.

After the birth of their two children, Hughes and Plath become increasingly estranged. And it is here that Paltrow begins the dazzling descent into her character -- giving us the all the possibilities of Sylvia's mind without slipping into any of the speculative clichs that surround the myths. Madness, jealously of Ted's affairs, exhaustion from motherhood, writer's block, suicidal tendencies -- Paltrow shows you that all of these factors more than made up Plath's character in the way she so elegantly wrote in "Daddy": "But they pulled me out of the sack,/ and they stuck me together with glue."

While Craig does an excellent job as the brooding Hughes in what could have been an incredibly flat character, Paltrow rises far above almost all her previous roles and steals the screen, transforming Plath's life and poetry from a myth into a love story as tragic as Romeo and Juliet. As Plath wrote: "The woman is perfect/ her dead/ body wears the smile of accomplishment."

-- Noel Black

Kimball's Twin Peak

  • Paltrow shines as haunted poet

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