if God were interested in close textual analysis: a review of "Sylvia"

by Grace Lovelace

"Sylvia" is not a great film, but Gwyneth Paltrow is kind of great in it. There is a leaden, predictable quality to the courtship and honeymoon scenes which open the film. Take heart: the picture picks up as Sylvia comes into her depression and jealousy while teaching at Smith. When I heard about the casting of Paltrow as Plath, I thought it made sense for her early, glamour girl years; suprisingly, Gwyneth is most devastating in the long brown braids and tweeds of the Devon period, and after the dissolution of the marriage, forget about it. By turns sarcastic, desolate, visionary--all thequalities of the poetry--I knew I was watching Gwyneth but at times had an uncanny sense of glimpsing Sylvia.

I don't want to exaggerate the virtues of the film, however: the filmmakers (writer John Brownlow and director Christine Jeffs), apparently
in the interest of compression and clarity, are consistently flat-footed and obvious. Those familiar with the story will probably find themselves
repeatedly irritated at alterations, all of which tend towards the bland. In just one example, Aurelia Plath, who played such a rich role in Plath's life and marriage (She was present at both their wedding and the discovery, by Sylvia, of Ted's affair) is reduced to one ceremonial scene early on. Blythe Danner brings such a complex presence to her short appearance, I longed to see what she could do with a meatier Aurelia. While certainly understandable for the sake of economy, the overall effect of these repeated ommission is to lose the specificity of the story. It doesn't help that because of legal reasons, not much of the poetry seeps into the film. There is something sort of illicit about the enjoyment of this film (filmed with full disapproval by their daughter Frieda); I for one felt a bit queasy viewing the close-up on the bleating babies after the discovery of the body.

Though much of the structure of Sylvia seems drawn from Birthday Letters, Ted Hughes remains opaque throughout. Physically, Daniel Craig is a powerful, seemingly Hughes-like presence, but this is Gwyneth's film. Oddly undifferenciated, Hughes is loving, solicitious, adulturous, gone. For a fleshed-out portrait of Ted Hughes (and a much fuller treatment of the actual writing of Plath and Hughes), I recommend the new book by Diana Middlebrook, Her Husband. Almost unique among Plath/Hughes biographers, she is utterly uninterested in apportioning blame; Why bother, she argues, when the marriage served its purposes for both of them, and certainly for us, the literary customer. Judicious, playful, detached but gleeful, this feels like God's eye-view of the whole relationship, if God were interested in close textual analysis.

In one of his late poems about Plath (the subject of this one ostensibly her horsemanship), Hughes writes:

When I jumped a fence you strangled me
One giddy moment, then fell off,
Flung yourself off and under my feet to trip me
And tripped me and lay dead. Over in a flash.

Rest assured, all this new material is enough to keep us Plathoholics tripping for a long time to come.


Grace Lovelace is the author of Diving into the Wreck: Female Narratives of Self-Discovery. She lives in Los Angeles.