Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Not Exceptionally Well

Sylvia, Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, Written by John Brownlow, Directed by Christine Jeffs, Focus Features, 2003

Gwyneth Paltrow has a unique ability to annoy me almost beyond endurance. The moment I sit down to watch a film with her in it, I am filled with what nearly amounts to revulsion for every aspect of her. Then some nearly magical transformation occurs and she becomes the role she is playing so thoroughly that the sensation disappears entirely. Once the movie is over, the sensation of dislike, lessened because of Paltrow’s absence, returns to hibernate deep within me until her next film.

The Sylvia Plath biopic, Sylvia, was no exception. The very first scene is a close up of half of Paltrow’s head, supine in deathly pale makeup, while she gravely voice-overs part of the poem “Lady Lazarus.”

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've a call.

Then with a minor chord thrum on the soundtrack, Paltrow’s closed eye snaps open. It’s a corny commencement and it worried me that the rest of the film would involve such high-handed “Art” moments. Luckily that did not turn out to be the case.

However, even without this flaw, Sylvia is a disappointing film. We are given very little of her formative years, her relationship with her father, or her suicide attempts. Instead the film focuses primarily on her marriage to Ted Hughes and her final successful suicide. The setting changes rapidly without letting us know where they are or what year it is.

When Plath and Hughes leave England after marrying and sail for America, the first scene with them in the States is at Plath’s mother’s house. Where is this? We aren’t told. The next scene has the newlyweds in a cabin near the coast. Where are we now? We aren’t informed. The next scene has us in yet a third town without a clue as to where this town might be located. There is never any suggestion as to how this change in fortune has come about, Plath never turns to Hughes and muses, “Thank god my mother found us this house,” or “I so love the Maine coast.” Nothing. We are just there for a few scenes, then we’re somewhere else.

It may seem a small thing, but it makes you feel that you are missing much information. A biographical film should be written as though it were meant for someone with absolutely no knowledge of the characters at all. You should be able to approach it as a virgin and understand it thoroughly. What Sylvia provides you with instead is a mash of scenes from her marriage to Hughes, a collection that never truly gels and never lets you get comfortable with the character.

No blame for this lies with Paltrow, who does her thing, looking harried and tired and always slightly off, with very rare bursts of sunshine. When she drives out to the beach with her two children determined to walk into the waves a la Virginia Woolf, the expression wrenching through her face as she looks back over her shoulder at her daughter’s silhouette waiting in the car is harrowingly moving.

Daniel Craig is suitably somber and glowery as Hughes, though we are given absolutely no insight to him as a character, no reason to believe he is a celebrated poet. Why does he care so much for the obviously batty Plath? It’s hard to say. While the story may be hers, it is a mistake to focus so exclusively on the protagonist, rendering all other characters as mere props to move the story along.

A bit role is extended to one of Britain’s finest actors, Michael Gambon, credited as Professor Thomas, though I’m uncertain if he is ever introduced by name. It’s a waste of his talents, like giving Sir John Gielguld a four line part as the bellhop. Paltrow’s real-life mother, Blythe Danner plays Plath’s mother in what comes off as too meta-glib to be more than distracting. Were we supposed to come away believing so wholly in Paltrow’s identification with Plath that they “shared” a mother? Alas, like Gambon, Danner is on the screen for less than five minutes max, and the exercise comes off as strained and elusive.

Which could be the epitaph for this misfired celluloid attempt.

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