She was extraordinarily gifted. She was beautiful. She had a passionate marriage to a handsome, equally gifted man. She experienced what's been described as "a prolonged, high-pitched ecstasy like nothing else in literature." And then she died, unimaginably young, a suicide at age 30, leaving behind two young children and an ever-swirling controversy. Is it any wonder that the culture can't get enough of the tragic, compelling life of Sylvia Plath?
The American Plath and her tortured, tortuous relationship with Ted Hughes, Britain's future poet laureate, have been the subjects of numerous biographies (including one just out) and critical studies, many concerned with the perpetually contentious questions of what Hughes did or did not do to her in life and to her work and legacy after her death.
An impressive new novel, "Wintering" by Kate Moses, explores some of this territory, as does a new film, "Sylvia," directed by New Zealand's Christine Jeffs and starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and British actor Daniel Craig as Hughes. It starts, as it should, with her words, for Plath's last poems, published posthumously in "Ariel," remain savage and indelible, the equivalent, Robert Lowell said, of "playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder."
It's a section from "Lady Lazarus" we hear first, spoken by Paltrow in effective voice-over as the camera focuses on her head resting emotionless on its side: "Dying is an art, like everything else, I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I have a call."
If "Sylvia" does nothing else, it reminds us of how good an actress Paltrow can be when she's got a strong part that suits her. Perhaps no other gifted performer of her generation has been in so much forgettable nonsense. But here, in a story she knows she has to take seriously, Paltrow is always involving as she lets us see the fierceness in Plath's soul, taking her from happiness to a grinding, palpable despair.
Aside from Paltrow's performance, "Sylvia" is neither a film so spectacular it shouldn't be missed nor something so tepid you have to stay away. Jeffs, whose first film was "Rain," has turned out a serious, respectful work that is well-crafted but only gets close to compelling near its terrible close.
We first see Plath, much as we saw Kate Winslet as the young Iris Murdoch in "Iris," careening down the streets of a British university town on a bicycle. She's a Fulbright fellow at Cambridge in 1956, and she is eager to get hold of a new poetry journal, which, as it turns out, has slammed her latest poems.
Still seething, Plath gets stopped in her tracks by her first sight of Hughes at a Cambridge party, and no wonder. As played by Craig (who was Paul Newman's evil son in "Road to Perdition"), Hughes with his unruly shock of black hair looks so craggy and quintessentially poetic he'd drive a bad review out of anybody's mind.
And, aside from each other, poetry is what both Hughes and Plath are most fervent about. She writes of her beau as a "black marauder," adding "one day I'll have my death of him." Not quite four months after they'd met, they marry in London. When they visit Plath's mother (adroitly played by Paltrow's mother Blythe Danner) in New England the following year, she tells Hughes, "I think you frightened her, that's why she likes you."
Working from a solid, well-researched debut script by John Brownlow, Jeffs keeps an even tone as she investigates this relationship, so central to the film that a more accurate title would be "Sylvia and Ted." These idyllic early days are, inevitably, "Sylvia's" most problematic sections: We don't want to watch this couple's happiness knowing as we do what is in store for them.
For as much as they loved each other and helped each other with their work, Hughes and Plath were likely not ideal mates. They both needed the emotional and practical assistance of a full-time support person, something that neither one could possibly be for the other, though the culture of the time placed considerable pressure on Plath to be just that for Hughes.
Adding to the complications was the way Hughes' flirtatious nature -- and his willingness to act on it -- attracted groupies given to saying things to her like "it must be wonderful to be married to such a great poet." Plath had an unstable nature to begin with -- she had attempted suicide before she met Hughes -- and this scenario seriously exacerbated the situation.
As the marriage worsens and Plath withdraws deeper and deeper into herself, Paltrow makes her strained mental state completely believable as well as painful to watch. When she confronts Hughes about his deceptions and says in a black fury, "the truth comes to me, the truth loves me," it's truly chilling. As A. Alvarez, a writer and friend, has said in a documentary interview, "the devil took her by the throat and shook her."