“But now you have defined the whole thing, and handed it to the public,” Ted Hughes wrote to A. Alvarez after the latter published a memoir of Hughes’s dead wife. Would for the widower that Alvarez had been the only one. The marriage of poets Hughes and Sylvia Plath was a lyrical ballad turned spectacular dirge that, after Plath’s 1963 suicide in London, drew scores of rubbernecking scribblers like a siren lament. Deconstructing the rugged übermensch and the maenad housewife spawned its own literary subgenre (or Plathology?), and as Janet Malcolm demonstrates in her metabiography of the couple, The Silent Woman, we tend to prefer the dead to the living: See rabid Plathites heckling Hughes’s readings with cries of “murderer.” The eventual British poet laureate ostensibly played the part of the silent man, saying next to nothing about the relationship until the release of Birthday Letters shortly before his death in 1998, but Hughes did know something of extermination: He destroyed one of Plath’s journals and “disappeared” another; an autobiographical novel she had written also went missing. Call it negative capability. Much as Hughes opposed the vulgar herd clamoring to define the whole thing, in some ways he simply stood tallest among them.
Now a movie joins the rabble, a handsome, mostly tasteful production on par with 2001’s Bayley-Murdoch impersonation Iris, which similarly introduced its heroine rattling down cobbled university streets on a bicycle, innocent and free. Sylvia is ridden with the ankle-spraining lawn divots of the biopic: the clumpy composite characters, a Woodward-esque presumption of omniscience, the collapsed chronology, the expository ventriloquism . . . not for nothing has daughter Frieda Hughes excoriated the production in verse as propping up a “Sylvia Suicide Doll.” But Gwyneth Paltrow is no marionette, and her performance stitches a fascinating double bind of Plath’s sunny all-American exterior and her storm-cloud inner voices—a deathly din unleashed in the brilliant fury of the Ariel poems, written during the fearsomely fecund last months of her life. As Hughes, Daniel Craig radiates the fabled erotic puissance, and the film admirably leaves him as a stone-bust enigma, a tabula rasa carved in Roman profile. As domestic relations disintegrate, director Christine Jeffs orchestrates an impressively gruesome dinner meltdown worthy of Abigail’s Party (meanwhile, John Toon’s autumnal cinematography appears to dry and wither in tandem with the marriage, while Gabriel Yared’s histrionic music starts to evoke Morricone scoring Sirk). The film falters, though, under the shadow of the couple’s legendary first meeting at a Cambridge fete in 1956, immortalized in Plath’s diaries. When pressed and pretty Sylvia bites into Ted’s cheek, drawing blood, it scans more like an embarrassing faux pas than soul mates colliding.
But so what? Generally speaking, biopics are an odd lot in openly presuming their viewers’ lack of imagination, even their lack of interest in the given subject—just a casual knowledge of Plath’s life will obviate the movie’s various re-enactments, which tweak facts but never toy with insights. Plath’s last-minute poetic achievements and her awful death seem yet more extraordinary given her role as single mother to two toddlers, but notwithstanding some crying, her little ones belong to the Hollywood magic breed of adorable moppets who appear and vanish as the plot finds convenient. More egregiously, screenwriter John Brownlow dumps a purely speculative peephole scene on the last reel, at which point the film stops Xeroxing despair and starts spinning it as soft-porn fiction. Brownlow explained in The Guardian that he wrote in this episode “because I am absolutely sure that something like that happened, but also because we needed a moment of happiness and resolution before the final, fatal act.” If you would search for happiness and resolution in the life of Sylvia Plath, then here’s your movie.