"Dying is an art, like everything else, I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell."
These opening lines, borrowed from Sylvia Plath's poem Lady Lazarus, signify the gloomy journey of Plath's tumultuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes. Those familiar with the American poets' life will already know of her suicidal, volatile nature and of her literary brilliance. However, what the prospective audience may not be prepared for is the dark execution of this tale.
Sylvia begins in 1956 with Plath and Hughes' initial encounter at a party at the University of Cambridge. When Hughes steals her hair band, Plath bites down hard on his cheek, drawing blood and piquing his interest. A whirlwind courtship segues into marriage a short four months later.
The demons that plague Plath also plague her marriage, eventually contributing to its death as well as hers. Sylvia can be commended for its admirable job of showcasing their marital relationship--it remains unbiased and honest amidst the dynamic connection between Plath and Hughes. Plath is portrayed as emotionally unstable and paranoid, while Hughes is revealed to be a callous womanizer. Blame is not placed on either of these characters for the relationship's destructive outcome. Instead, each is seen as an equal contributor to its passion and turbulence.
Gwyneth Paltrow assumes the challenging title role, lending a captivating presence to the film. While other actresses may have been equally adept at depicting Plath, this does not take away from the depth and emotion she displays.
Daniel Craig's portrayal of Hughes is respectable, however, the audience never becomes truly engaged by his character. Still, Paltrow and Craig manage to convincingly convey the intensity between Plath and Hughes in both their professional and personal lives.
Paltrow's mother Blythe Danner steals the show as Plath's mother, Aurelia. In her few scenes, she manages to endear herself to the audience as Plath's poised protector.
Despite the good performances, Sylvia crawls at a snail's pace, stretching the story too thin and making the film seem much longer than its 100 minutes.
The film also perpetuates the idea that Plath was a woman overshadowed by her more widely acclaimed husband, which eventually contributed to her suicide.
During her life, Plath struggled to retain some degree of mental constancy, eventually losing the battle at the young age of 30. No doubt her marriage to Hughes contributed to her instability. In spite of this, Plath was never at his mercy, rather finding herself at her own peril.
Sylvia could have been a better film. It should have focused less on the melodramatic and neurotic aspects of Plath's life with Hughes, concentrating instead on their mutual bond that gave birth to some of the era's finest poetry.
In all, Sylvia is brilliant but intrinsically flawed, much like Plath herself.