Scoop's comments, written in ought-three.
Before I saw this film, I was not particularly knowledgeable about
the poetess Sylvia Plath. I know that she was an unlikely 20th century
poet - not the expected wild-eyed Bohemian, but a bourgeois
middle-American who looked like she would have been more at home in a
Betty Crocker cook-off than in a Greenwich Village coffee shop. I know
that she tried to commit suicide several times, starting when she was
ten years old, and coming very close to success in that endeavor between
her junior and senior years at Smith. By her own count, as detailed in
"Lady Lazarus", she tried to kill herself three times unsuccessfully.
She finally succeeded at ending her life on the fourth attempt, when she
stuck her head in an oven shortly after the unhappy dissolution of her
marriage to poet Ted Hughes.
I know that many people consider her a great poet. I don't know about
that. I don't like her work, but I'm not really interested in any 20th
century poetry after T.S. Eliot, and I don't really get into morbid
self-absorption, so that's just my taste kicking in. Let's assume she
was top-drawer. But I'll tell you this. She sure wasn't much of a
novelist. I read The Bell Jar and I found it to be completely without
merit of any kind.
I also know that nobody really knows what the hell was wrong with her
head. She was not abused or tortured in childhood. She never had much
hardship in her life. She didn't experience the tragic death of any of
her children. No major traumas like that. She was a brilliant student,
an attractive woman, and a successful author. She had two beautiful
She was said to be a happy child until she was about ten, at which
point her father died, and she gradually took on more and more
manic-depressive behavior characteristics, and an increasing morbidity.
In her life, and in her work, she talked about death so much that she
made Jim Morrison seem as life-affirming as Zorba the Greek.
The death of a parent and the dissolution of a marriage are difficult
circumstances, but similar things happen to most people, and they do not
spend their lives sticking their heads in ovens or popping sleeping
pills. Clearly she was messed up, and one naturally wonders if there is
some explanation, some insight, perhaps to be found in her own words.
That is what I knew before I saw the movie. That is still all I know.
No further illumination, in fact not even that much illumination,
will be found in this film, which simply hits upon some biographical
highlights chronologically. It can't use her poetry to illuminate her
mental condition, because Plath's estate would not allow her poetry to
be quoted in this film.
In fact, the script really didn't capture the nature of her mental
illness. Ron Howard has taken some flack in his life for being a
pedestrian, mainstream director, but he did quite a good job at
demonstrating the nature of the mental illness in A Beautiful Mind, by
using visual devices and by keeping some of the delusions hidden
temporarily from the audience. These tactics allowed the audience to see
through the eyes of the deranged mathematician, and to live in his
reality. Sylvia accomplishes none of that. Whenever a depressive or
paranoid episode is coming on, it alerts us and then suffocates us with
the usual movie cliché - tragic and dissonant violin music.
In other words, this is a film about a mentally unhinged poet, yet it
offers no insight into her mental condition, and never uses her poems.
Sylvia Plath without the poetry and without some insight into her mental
illness is about as interesting as "Oklahoma!" without the songs.
Some feminists have found Plath to be a symbolic victim of woman's
inferior role in modern society, and they often claim that she was
destroyed by devoting her life to, and giving up her own work for, a
cheating, insensitive man. The film did, at least, give the axe to that
theory, since it clearly shows that Plath's mental condition was just as
bad before the failure of her relationship with Hughes, and that Hughes
did everything he could to get her to stop playing housewife and start
writing. Of course, his leaving hastened her decline, and was the direct
cause of her final sayonara, but it was merely the straw that broke the
This film was supposed to be the great return of Gwyneth Paltrow to
serious, respectable cinema, after having been slumming in junk flicks
for some time. Gwyn's performance is fine, but the movie is so
insignificant that I don't expect her to get any award nominations, and
very few people will ever get to see the performance in order to
evaluate it. And to tell you the truth, she was overshadowed by a
charismatic performance by Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes, just as Sylvia
Plath was overshadowed by the real Hughes. In other words, Gwyn will
have to wait a while to re-ignite her career, because this film won't do