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Sylvia

Lives of the Poets

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At Cambridge, the precocious, brilliant, moody American poet Sylvia Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) meets the precocious, brilliant, moody English poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). They fall madly in love, marry and after a brief sojourn in America set up housekeeping in England. They struggle to raise a family, to write poetry and to reconcile a troubled relationship that is tested by Hughes' infidelity and Plath's deepening depression.

This biographical film from New Zealander Christine Jeffs (Rain) is certainly guilty of romanticism, of perpetuating the myth that creative genius must suffer, that great loves are turbulent, and it is only through crashing lows and giddy highs that real love and true art can flourish. You can almost hear the wistful sighs of young poets-to-be who might be watching and dreaming of such personally disastrous yet creatively fruitful encounters. Casting the statuesque Paltrow and the darkly soulful Craig will only further set romantic hearts a-pitter-pat.

To that end, the film is prettily shot, the scenes of their early love set amidst sparkling seas and sun-dappled writing retreats. When the couple returns to England and their marriage deteriorates, the camera moves indoors into cramped, shabby dark spaces and slows down to record the increasing drudgery of Plath's morose housewifery.

Sylvia works mightily to be even-handed, to counter decades of post-game literary analysis revering Plath as a noble victim and excoriating Hughes as the man who bridled then destroyed her spirit. Its intentions are noble (though perhaps not so coincidental, since Hughes, shortly before his 1998 death, broke his decades-long silence with his side of the story).

I must quibble that from a dramatic point of view, this leaves the story a trifle dull: Without a clear antagonist, each scene of discord resolves with a shrug of "well, they'reboth behaving poorly." Jeffs obviously hopes to present the story as a folie a deux, or in more contemporary terms, a toxic relationship, but the film's meditation on love and madness doesn't feel much deeper than a very special Dr. Phil intervention.

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