" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Were it not for Iris and The Hours, two recent movies about the ragged lives of literary women, Sylvia might look like a small gem. Instead, it looks like a copycat, Gwynneth Paltrow’s “me too” movie.

A More Famous Death

Paltrow gets to show her range as Sylvia Plath
Paltrow gets to show her range as Sylvia Plath

The Sylvia of the title is Sylvia Plath, an American poet who wrote here and in Britain in the fifties and sixties. Perhaps you know her novel The Bell Jar, although she may be better known for her death than her life. She famously committed suicide by inhaling natural gas from her oven, after several other failed attempts.

Sylvia opens on Plath’s first meeting with Ted Hughes, her future husband, and follows the couple through the rest of Plath’s life.

As someone unfamiliar with Plath’s work, I came to Sylvia not for the subject matter, but for the movie, and maybe to learn something about the suicidal writer. There were moments in the movie written for people like me — Plath’s agent Alvarez (Jared Harris) explains why her work is important and respected.

There were also scenes for followers of Plath that were probably lost on someone like me. At a party she attends with Ted and the other poetry nerds, they recite so quickly, I couldn’t even make out what they were saying, let alone identify the poetry or its relevance to the scene.

The Ivory Tower

The movie is approachable. You don’t have to be a poet yourself to appreciate the characters or the marital tension. But frankly, the life of Sylvia Plath has little blue-collar appeal. She lived and worked in academic ivory tower, and her psychotic jealousy makes it hard to relate to her. Paltrow is great in the role, but I found myself relating more to Ted, or to their friends.

Sylvia has been called a vanity project, and that’s not an unfair assessment. In spite of the recent release of Hughes’ diaries (in 1998, according to the movie), Americans weren’t exactly clamoring for a film adaptation of Plath’s life. And it does seem designed to showcase Paltrow’s great range, starting with the joyful vibrancy of young love — she playfully recites Chaucer in Old English to cows as Ted poles them down a river. A few years later, she portrays the depressed and anxious woman who writes black, morbid poetry. Still later, her jealousy becomes so irrational that, in front of dear friends, she accuses her husband and her guest of hanky-panky when all they’re doing is washing dishes.

If The Hours left you wanting more, and if Iris wasn’t enough, then give Sylvia a look. If you’re looking for something a little more cinematic, look elsewhere.