'Sylvia' studies mystery of Plath

by Christine Huggins | 11/21/03 6:00am

Emerging from the darkness of the black screen is half a woman's face -- pale, defeated; its mouth speaks of death. The face belongs to Sylvia Plath, and this is the opening shot of the first filmed chronicle of her life, "Sylvia."

The body riveting and dark poetry that so many have studied and read so closely produced innumerable questions yet unanswered about the woman who created it. Recently, two women have attempted to solve the mystery: filmmaker Christine Jeffs tried to capture the poet on film, and actress Gwyneth Paltrow tried to capture the poet in the flesh. The result was the recently released film "Sylvia."

Sylvia's story is inextricably tied to her husband, Ted Hughes, the love and agony of her life. Because of the importance of Ted in Sylvia's life, Jeffs concentrates on depicting their relationship from its pinnacle of happiness to its unbearable low.

This relationship is a driving force behind the movie and Sylvia's poetry, and Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig do a flawless job of portraying not only the sexual tension but also the intellectual tension. They are brilliant poets, and there is a certain competition between them. Sylvia takes care of the children while Ted writes to support the family.

This causes Sylvia to resent Ted, as shown in a tense dinner scene in the movie. A guest asks, "Are you managing to write at all with the baby?" Sylvia scathingly replies, "No, but Ted is, and that's all that matters. He's the real poet in the house."

Soon Sylvia develops a paranoia about her husband's activities, which brings up the question of who pushed who away. Ted made mistakes, but Sylvia drove him to them with her paranoia. These two seemed bound to inflict pain on each other. Their relationship is such an inherent part of them that it makes theirs a true love story.

At the same time, though, when Ted withdraws and takes his love with him, he takes part of her with him. This loss allows her to write her most brilliant poetry, but at what cost? She loses herself in the process.

Jeffs does an admirable job of taking a predictable storyline and making it unpredictable. The story builds in tension as Sylvia spirals downward.

You know she'll go over the edge, you just wonder when she will fall and what will push her over.

Gwyneth Paltrow does an Oscar-worthy job of portraying Sylvia trying to reconcile life with her fascination with death. Sylvia tries to keep the blackness at bay as she balks at suicide numerous times.

But finally life becomes too much, Ted becomes too much, she's in so much pain that she's hollow inside, and the nothingness and numbness of death just seems to be a continuation of the nothingness and numbness of life.

Love, death, poetry, paranoia and the pain of life echo throughout the entire movie. They weave together, and take the audience on an emotional and intellectual roller-coaster.

"Sylvia" is one of the most thought-provoking movies of the year. It raises so many questions, and yet it doesn't try to define who Sylvia Plath was.

Perhaps this is why the movie is so successful. Instead of trying to be a commentary on the life of Sylvia Plath the movie just presents Sylvia Plath as she truly was -- a mystery.