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Last Updated: Friday, 7 November, 2003, 11:44 GMT
Sex, suicide and poetry in Sylvia
By Neil Smith
BBC News Online

Gwyneth Paltrow plays Sylvia Plath
The London Film Festival closed on Thursday with Sylvia, a biopic of American poet Sylvia Plath starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Sex, death and poetry are at the heart of Sylvia, the powerful but inevitably downbeat biopic of suicidal American poet Sylvia Plath.

Anchored by a nakedly emotional lead performance from Gwyneth Paltrow, the film charts the sexually charged relationship between Plath and fellow poet Ted Hughes and shows how their passionate union spiralled into infidelity and violence.

Directed by New Zealand's Christine Jeffs, it is a handsome and affecting work.

For all that, there's simply no getting away from the fact that this is the tragic story of a woman who ended up with her head in the oven.

When we first meet Sylvia in 1956, she's an ambitious Cambridge student desperate to find her voice as a poet.

Paranoid suspicions

Captivated by Ted's "crushing poems", it's love at first sight for the young American and the gruff, hard-drinking Yorkshireman.

But as his star rises and she finds herself working to support him and their children, her thwarted ambition and paranoid suspicions drive a wedge between them.

When he deserts her for another woman, it is only a matter of time before Sylvia goes over the edge.

Paltrow is at her best in the early scenes, depicting Plath as a romantic soul prone to instant crushes and quoting Chaucer to cows.

But as Sylvia's misery escalates Paltrow's fits of teary rage become slightly repetitive, while Jeffs relies on too obvious signifiers - driving rain, Plath's increasingly distressed hair - to convey her agitated state of mind.

Writer John Brownlow effectively demonises Hughes by blaming him for all Sylvia's woes, but to his credit he does handle her sad end with taste and sensitivity.

And though Craig's is very much the lesser role, he does manage to embody Hughes' fiery temperament and guilty conscience.

Reminiscent of the recent Iris Murdoch biopic Iris, another BBC-backed film with a literary heroine, Jeffs' film was all set to bring the 2003 London Film Festival to a slightly subdued conclusion.

But it is hardly the disaster some reviewers will have you believe, even if it does only scratch the surface of one of poetry's most tragic and perplexing figures.

Sylvia opens in the UK on 23 January.

Paltrow lights up festival finale
06 Nov 03  |  Entertainment
Paltrow 'lost the joy' of acting
14 Oct 03  |  Entertainment
Plath film angers daughter
03 Feb 03  |  Entertainment

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