SYLVIA is the depressing portrayal of the true-life story of poet Sylvia Plath and her marriage to Ted Hughes, who was an acclaimed poet in contrast to Ms. Plath’s unsteady and tumultuous path of popularity. The American Plath meets Hughes in England. Marriage and two children follow a short courtship, but the relationship is tumultuous and eventually flounders due to Sylvia’s emotional instability, followed by her husband’s desertion to another woman.
Sylvia had tried suicide at least once before meeting Hughes, and she succeeded in 1963, less than a decade after they met. Whatever fame she achieved in her life has been eclipsed by what one viewer describes as “a cottage industry of people studying her relationship with Hughes, an activity more important to some than her very fine poems and her most famous book, a novel, The Bell Jar. In short, the real Sylvia Plath, whoever she was, has been hijacked.”
The movie begins with Sylvia saying, “Dying is an art. Like everything else I do exceptionally well. So it feels like hell, it feels real. I believe I have a call.” Sylvia proceeds to meet Ted Hughes, whose poetry she adores. The two fall in love and marry pretty quickly. Soon, Sylvia confesses that she’s tried to take her life several times, but that she rose up again each time, like Lazarus. She calls herself, “Lady Lazarus.”
Ted meets Sylvia’s high-society mother, who warns him that her daughter is fragile and that he must be good to her. The young married couple decides to spend the summer in a quaint beach house, in order to write. Ted writes, and gets his work published, while Sylvia struggles with continual writer’s block and the demons of her past. Sylvia confesses that she’s struggled with chronic depression, insane jealousy, and suicide ever since her father died when she was nine.
Ted insists that Sylvia write more, annoyed that she bakes instead of composing verse. He’s supportive but also blind to the deepening reality that he is dealing with a woman who needs help – deep, ongoing help and a radical spiritual transformation. As the movie progresses and Sylvia’s inner anger, angst, and depression continue to unfold, audiences wonder whether or not her accusations against her husband are delusions, whether her two beautiful young children can fill the void in her heart, and whether or not she’ll be able to live in her mad inner world. Gwynneth Paltrow artfully plays the role of a wife, mother, and poet who slowly loses her mind, and eventually control of her life.
Incidentally, after Sylvia’s death, Hughes inherits his wife’s estate and oversees the posthumous publication of Ariel, one of Sylvia’s most enduring legacies. A man who only wanted to be a first-rate poet, he became (and still is post mortem) the subject of arguments as to his treatment of Sylvia and his responsibility for her taking her life. According to one viewer, Hughes survived to publish many fine poems, and he became poet laureate of England, a post he both sought and enjoyed (Hughes was one of the very few modern and relatively young intellectuals who was a convinced monarchist).
Not long before succumbing to cancer, Hughes published Birthday Letters, an attempt to show through years of verse the nature of his relationship with Sylvia. Whether viewed as an apologia, last record, or a chance to give his side, this work has found much acclaim over the past decade.
SYLVIA has gorgeous cinematography, stellar actors, and commendable directing, but like the recent movies THE HOURS and THE HUMAN STAIN, the message in SYLVIA is that suicide is a viable, though regrettable, option for chronic depression. Further, these movies seem to say that if one is an intellectual, he or she should obviously abide in a continual dark funk, because that shows one’s brilliance. Optimism and hope are clearly for the bourgeoisie and the simple minded.
Like the upcoming film, BEYOND BORDERS, the protagonist makes the incredible and horrifying choice to leave her beautiful children to pursue her own selfish ends. After all, is not suicide the ultimate selfish act – the choice of a permanent solution to a temporary problem? One “friend” in the movie says something like, “Sylvia, death is not a door, or a homecoming, or a reunion. It is just nothing.”
Throughout the movie, many viewers, especially Christian viewers, might wonder why there was no one at all who took the time and effort to reach into Sylvia’s miry pit and invite her to meet the Lover of her soul. Was there no one to say, “Come and meet my Friend. He will make you lie down in green pastures; he will lead you beside still waters. He will restore your soul.” Believers everywhere should pray that such movies do not drive depressed and aimless viewers into suicide. It is a serious reality that impressionable audiences often mimic the detestable practices portrayed on the silver screen.
In addition to embracing suicide as an option, the movie highlights adultery, child neglect, fornication, and substance abuse. There are several sex scenes that show full female nudity and partial male nudity, and there are nearly 30 obscenities and profanities in the film. Overall, moral audiences will likely avoid SYLVIA. Hopefully, all children and emotionally unstable people will find brighter fare for their winter viewing.
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David Linde and James Schamus
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SUMMARY: SYLVIA is the depressing story of 20th Century poet Sylvia Plath, a woman hounded by chronic depression, insane jealousy, and thoughts of suicide. With foul language, sex, and a deplorable worldview, moral audiences will surely find plenty of lighter, more acceptable viewing alternatives this year.
(PaPa, Ro, LLL, VV, SS, NN, A, DD, MM) Strongly pagan worldview with the underlying message that life is meaningless and hopeless, that suicide is a viable answer to depression, with relativistic decisions made with no indication of a system of absolutes; strong language with nine mild obscenities, nine strong obscenities, and nine profanities; violence includes man slapping woman, woman slapping man, and suicide attempts and suicide preparations shown; several sex scenes, including full female nudity and rear male nudity; several portrayals of alcohol; some portrayals of smoking; several portrayals of drug use and abuse; and positive portrayal of suicide and neglect of children.