Sylvia (2003) Review

I watched Sylvia with one question going through my head – Why does Sylvia Plath get a biopic? It was about a month ago that I watched The Iron Lady, a film about the first female Prime Minister and a time in British history when society was in turmoil and a hugely divisive person ruled the country. Though it had its faults, it was for the most part a very good film and I never, not once, wondered why anyone was making a film about Margaret Thatcher. I understood why this woman warranted an hour and half of my life. I couldn’t say the same for Sylvia!

Is Gwyneth’s Sylvia Plath really worthy of a film?

I understand that she was a troubled person. She was married to a very successful and critically acclaimed poet, Ted Hughes, and she herself was also very successful. She also committed suicide under almost legendary circumstances. Apart from that, there isn’t much else to go on. Most biopic’s have a hook into the character. With Margaret Thatcher it was her “dementia.” With A Beautiful Mind we had John Nash’s schizophrenia. Most films seem to have a story to tell. Sylvia doesn’t.

The only real hook I could pick out of the film was her turbulent marriage to Ted Hughes. This was the main focus of the film and helped to explain her trouble with writing poetry and also her inspiration for writing in later life. It wasn’t exactly a Romeo and Juliet story though. They argued, they got on, he was successful, she wasn’t and he slept around while she cried about it. I’d understand a little bit more if they called the film Sylvia and Ted.

If this is the real story, shouldn’t it have focused more on Ted as well?

I may have completely misinterpreted the film. I don’t know very much about Sylvia Plath but then I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to watch the film knowing her story already. I should watch and feel enlightened, like I did with A Beautiful Mind. Instead I watched and wondered why she even has a film? I may find later that Sylvia Plath suffered from a mental illness but if this is the case, it wasn’t explicit. I have a lot of time for film’s that put across a story subtly but if Sylvia is trying to do this, it failed. There is subtle and there is hidden. Or maybe her story is just that she married a famous man, had a troubled marriage, wrote poems about it and committed suicide. It doesn’t seem like a biopic-worthy story.

Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes – as brilliant as ever.

I can’t fault the actors involved. Gwyneth Paltrow was very good as Sylvia and Daniel Craig was even better as Ted Hughes. That being said, with Meryl Streep I had something to compare her too. I had seen Margaret Thatcher. I had heard her speak. Meryl Streep’s version of Thatcher was brilliant. I don’t have that point of reference with Sylvia Plath or Ted Hughes. The film was very well acted but whether it was an accurate depiction is another matter entirely.

It may seem like I’m being very harsh on the story of Sylvia Plath. I understand she is a well liked and popular poet who is credited with amazing work. That doesn’t make her worthy of a film. As far as I could tell, the interesting parts of her story came from who she married and her suicide, nothing else. Half way through, I was lost and bored.

Overall, I could be missing the point. There may be people out there who watch Sylvia, have read her poems and know her story who get what the film is trying to do. That is fine but I still think any film should try to appeal to more than just fans of the subject. I went in thinking I’d learn something about a troubled and tragic character but felt just as ignorant when the film had finished.

Rating 1.5

(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)

The real Sylvia and Ted – they don’t instantly make me think Daniel Craig and Gwyneth Paltrow?!
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