Trite treatment

Sylvia glosses over Plath’s pathos

The Hours opened with Virginia Woolf’s death by drowning. The bio-picture Sylvia, about poet Sylvia Plath, opens similarly, with the suicide that has largely defined her legacy.

But Sylvia does not stray far from the superficial legend that has reduced Plath to a poster girl for undergrad fantasies of romantic, tragic self-ruin. Director Christine Jeffs’ stylized, maudlin approach is epitomized by the scene of Sylvia’s Final Exit in which an overhead shot captures the writer’s body draped in a brilliant scarlet cloth set dramatically against a landscape of freshly fallen snow.

Unfortunately, in the interim between Plath’s death and the present, the kind of internal agony that consumed her has been democratized and made almost banal. Everyone wants a piece of the woe-is-me racket. Bookstores are larded with crazy-lady sagas from Girl, Interrupted to Prozac Nation, and the madness that was once the distinction of artistic frustration and exclusion has become the hook of every self-indulgent memoir.

Director Jeffs, whose debut 2001 film Rain promised better things ahead, puts the white gloves on Plath’s tragedy and never takes them off. She portrays Sylvia’s agony in conventional cinematic terms — lovely and photogenic — as defined by Paltrow’s wraithlike demeanor, troubled doe-eyes and wild, witchy mass of hair. Worst of all, Sylvia makes a woman’s problems trivial, reducing them to sexual jealousy and an inarticulate bitchiness.

After the opening death scene, the story of Sylvia gets underway with a flashback to Plath’s first meeting with sexually charismatic future-husband Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). Craig has an earthiness that fits badly with Paltrow’s self-conscious movie-star tics and chalky brittleness. Paltrow has something of Katharine Hepburn’s persona about her. She can do the highborn, articulate actorly shtick with aplomb, but she can’t find a way into Plath’s more human qualities.

There is a promising sexual charge in the couple’s introductory meeting when they impulsively begin dancing after the briefest introduction. But the intensity soon fizzles when Jeffs resorts to canned vignettes (the couple cavort merrily in the surf) to illustrate the token good times before the inevitable bad ones.

Sylvia’s greatest handicap in telling Plath’s story is that it makes her life so unbearably dull by fixating on the hackneyed storytelling device of the doomed trajectory of her marriage to Hughes. Babies arrive; Hughes’ fame grows but Plath’s doesn’t; pretty undergraduates and bookish older dames clutch at Hughes’ elbow, fluttering their lashes his way.

In the meantime, Jeffs initially paints Plath’s jealousy as shrewish paranoia. She accuses Hughes of infidelity based on very little and drives him from their house in the windswept, grim depths of rural England where they live. Jeffs and screenwriter John Brownlow even miss the opportunity to convey something of the misery of Plath’s existence. Instead of drudgery, Jeffs makes hanging laundry in the gray English winter and bathing children look blandly lovely. There is no sense of the oppressiveness of domestic toil that keeps Plath chained to home and hearth while her husband is free to gallivant.

On her honeymoon, Sylvia mentions the early stages of her depression, which may have been triggered by her father’s death, but Jeffs almost immediately drops that line of inquiry. Fear of abandonment, the open wound of the too-early loss of a parent — it’s as if such notions have been stricken from the film because they complicate its commitment to the doomed love story.

Sylvia is reminiscent of a funeral in which the priest delivers a by-rote eulogy that not only fails to capture the singularity of the loved one, but actually reduces him or her to just one more in a long line of corpses. Sylvia ends up shortchanging one of the few real tragic heroines in our popular consciousness. When there are so few stories dedicated to female creativity and pathos, you resent this one all the more for mishandling what might have been.