Reviewer's Rating 4 out of 5  
Sylvia (2004)
15Contains strong language and moderate sex

Atmospheric, elegant and thoughtful, Sylvia is a biopic of an angst-ridden icon. It's about the turbulent relationship between the once unsung poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the rising star of the Sixties poetry scene, future poet laureate Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig, in a muscular performance). It opens with an image of its star looking so grey-faced she could be dead. And doesn't get much cheerier.

Mind you, it's hard to imagine anyone expecting a picture about Plath to provide Singin' In The Rain-style uplift. Hers is a life defined, in its on-screen incarnation at least, by depression, death and frustrated ambition.

Friends or family members might feel this is unfair. It certainly risks being one-dimensional. But as arguably uncinematic as a slow descent into misery may be, it's handled sympathetically and skilfully here.


Christine Jeffs' second film (after the well-received Rain) was originally titled Ted And Sylvia, and it's the leads' scenes together that really standout. An impassioned first meeting leaves a literal mark on Hughes (she bites his cheek), but it's Plath who's scarred, writing of her 'Black Marauder': "One day I'll have my death of him."

Paltrow's performance is impressive. She has a Grace Kelly coolness which undermines the more sexual scenes, yet you'll care even as her character becomes unbalanced. The script is smart, placing a question mark over whether Ted's unfaithfulness is fact or fiction: asking if Plath is ill-treated or simply irrational.

Neither party is patronised or demonised, while the power of their poetry is implied without relentless scenes of writing and reading. Their enthusiasm for their art is such that you will want to seek it out.

Which may be Sylvia's most significant achievement, alongside a refusal to explain away or trivialise the lead's desire for "blackness and silence". The end, when it comes, could have appeared either self-consciously 'tragic', or the selfish act of a little madam. Instead, like Plath's depression, it just is.

End Credits

Director: Christine Jeffs

Writer: John Brownlow

Stars: Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Blythe Danner, Michael Gambon

Genre: Drama

Length: 110 minutes

Cinema: 30 January 2004

Country: UK

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