dir. Jeffs

Opens Fri Oct 24

Various Theaters

It's hard to paint a true-life tragedy without treading onto mythic territory, especially when your subject is already considered a martyr for art. Sylvia Plath's life, the basis for Christine Jeffs' Sylvia, became a cornerstone of early feminist theory, a real-life example of a strong woman sacrificed to domesticity, a philandering husband, and an absent father. At 30, the gifted poet and author of The Bell Jar gassed herself to death in her own kitchen, a symbolic act congruous with her poetry, and which many blamed on her husband, the poet Ted Hughes.

Tackling as elusive and controversial a subject as Plath is ambitious, which is probably why Jeffs' film (starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath) works in fits and starts, sometimes opting for the burnished lens of Hollywood and forced poetic imagery. Paltrow, a solid actor but not a great one, drawls her way through her role. She affects the groomed, upper-middle-class accent her character requires, though imbues it with a labored sarcasm that stings more like The Royal Tenenbaums than Fulbright scholar. Sure, Plath's poems teeter with sharp wit, but Paltrow's wry delivery can't transcend Gwyneth Paltrow playing Sylvia Plath. Though they look alike, she never fully inhabits the poet's complexities.

As with Jeffs' debut film, Rain, Sylvia purports to be about its women, but relates to them via its men. In Sylvia, Ted Hughes is the focal point; Jeffs takes the husband-as-suicide route and blames Hughes--his handsomeness, the inexorable eclipse of his career. (At one point, Sylvia assumes responsibility for Hughes' mistress, distressing, "I conjured her.") Sylvia does nothing to dispel the myth of Plath's persona, and neither does it add to it. For all practical purposes, it's another stereotypical romance film, hinging its plot on the famous tale of a woman's madness.

Jeffs seems fixated on the ocean--a landscape that defined Rain--and it remains a metaphor in Sylvia, if an obvious one. In one scene, Ted (played by Daniel Craig) and Sylvia are rowing in a canoe when they start to drift out to sea. Panicked, Ted says, "The tide's dragging us out; I can't bring us back in. People drown like this." One tires of the constant metaphorical platitudes. Love is a prison. At times, so is this film.