BBC Films has hit upon a formula for pleasing literature fans who occasionally like to venture out into the cinema. Basically, take a great British literary icon and make a story about a turbulent romance and their eventual tragic death. To add a sense of familiarity, ensure that only their first name is used – in 2001 it was Iris (Iris Murdoch) and now it is Sylvia (Sylvia Plath).
OK, so technically Sylvia Plath was American, but she was educated at Cambridge and spent most of her life in the UK, so we can practically claim her as our own. She always wanted to commit suicide; the film makes this implicit from the very start. Whether it was the sleeping pills as a child, the drowning attempt as an adolescent or the slit wrists as a teenager, Sylvia does its best to inform us of the poetís precarious state of mind. Perhaps this is an attempt to prepare us for the eventual conclusion. Yes, one night in 1963, at the age of 30, Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) put her kids to bed and then killed herself. The glam style in which it is done and the heavy-handed hints earlier in the film only serve to support the notion raised by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, that the movie would be about a ‘Sylvia suicide doll’.
So, it’s 1950s Cambridge and the cream of British academia are running around the famous halls of education, musing, writing and, of course, courting (rub you eyes here, although it’s Cambridge instead of Oxford, this could just as well be the opening 20 minutes of Iris). Plath has just had a poem reviewed in the college literary journal and it was slammed. However, within the magazine, she reads a poem by an Edward Hughes (Daniel Craig) that touches her and she sets about finding him. Within minutes of meeting at a party, they are kissing. When Hughes is forced to leave and mingle, Plath bites his cheek and draws blood. This might set alarm bells ringing in most men, but instead it sparks a passion in Hughes.
Once married, all things change. Hughes’ genius as a poet is recognised even before his graduation from Oxford, while Plath struggles to overcome writer’s block and an all-consuming paranoid jealousy about Hughes’ interaction with other women. Even a retreat to the country fails to either stir Plath’s creative juices or alleviate her possessiveness. She becomes convinced that he is having an affair, and perhaps it is her insistence or the shear impossibility of living with Plath that eventually drives Hughes to infidelity.
Their separation proves to be a good thing for Plath; at least creatively. It was during their time apart that she wrote the celebrated novel, The Bell Jar, and the posthumously published collection of poetry, Ariel, both of which brought her greater fame than Hughes. However, it was when Plath realised that the relationship was irreconcilable (Hughes’ new girlfriend was pregnant) that she decided to kill herself.
Perhaps Iris worked so well because it was based upon the memoirs of Murdoch’s husband, John Bayley, and was therefore imbued with a touching authenticity. However, Hughes maintained a stony silence over his relationship with Plath until a collection of poems called Birthday Letters was published two months before his death. He also edited her poems, saw The Bell Jar to print and burned one of Plath’s journals, claiming he didn’t want the children to see it. The result is a film that seems to have focused on legend over fact. It doesn’t help that the film is forced to avoid using any of Plath’s poetry thanks to the objections of her family to the making of the film.
Sterling performances from both Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig help to create a sense of the frustration and tragedy of Plath’s short life and the guilt, anger and futility felt by Hughes. However, it is a relentlessly gloomy and overtly pretentious film that pertains to capture passion and genius, but instead descends into melodrama.