“Sylvia” – film review

I forced myself to watch this because a friend put a copy in my hands and asked for my opinion. I had four main concerns with the concept of a film about the life of Sylvia Plath:

  1. It had to be about the poetry
  2. Her life was not foreshadowed by her death
  3. The main character had to be recognisably Sylvia Plath
  4. The limitations of the medium of film itself.

The Poetry

Reading Sylvia Plath’s poems as biography is problematic. Poetry is fiction, not fact, and Sylvia transformed direct experience into poetry, using fiction to portray a truth from her perspective. Like most writers, she was not above appropriating others’ experiences as her own. Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother, remembers hauling a crawling Warren from the sea by his ankles. Yet Sylvia wrote it up as if it were her who’d crawled into the waves. She wanted to capture the experience of crawling into the waves and knew the most poetic way of doing so was from a first person perspective, the fact it wasn’t her direct experience wasn’t relevant.

Sylvia role-played and liked to portray her life/self as for example, the all-round-sport-and-straight-As-balanced-student, the doting mother and homemaker swapping recipes and attending church, the dutiful daughter writing home. So the Sylvia extracted from any given poem could depend on what her role was during the experience she was writing about. Instinctively she wrote for her audience, even in letters, writing what she intuitively guessed the reader wanted to hear.

This was behaviour she’d learnt from an early age when she was sent to grandparents whilst her mother cared for a seriously ill husband and an asthmatic baby with bronchitis. Sylvia saw her brother as a rival for her mother’s affection and learnt that exhibiting appropriate behaviour won love and approval. Aurelia Plath lived vicariously through Sylvia’s teenage dates and dances so Sylvia learnt to live and observe herself living to create a fiction to keep her mother happy too; the teenager taking on the responsibility of keeping both herself and her adult mother happy.

But Sylvia’s life was all about her poetry. It burned through her. A film without the poems will not do.

Foreshadowing

We cannot escape from death, however, few people under thirty-five know how they will die. Even on her thirtieth birthday, Sylvia Plath did not know she was going to take her own life. Her life was not foreshadowed by her death. A film that portrays her life as foreshadowed, is false.

Recognising Sylvia Plath

Naturally everyone who reads her poems, her stories, her novel, her journals, her letters home will have a different image of Sylvia and the persona that comes through her work. Will the Sylvia of the film be recognisable as the Sylvia persona that I perceive through her work? My own perception could be wrong, biased by my reading. I never met her or anyone who knew her. Like watching an adaption of a book, I want reassurance that I will recognise the central character.

Limitations of Film

  • A film is necessarily visual – poetry doesn’t translate well to film because it’s generally static, characters sitting at a desk writing or reading back the poem they’ve just written can get visually boring and having a voice-over with relevant imagery can become repetitive.
  • A thirty-year life cannot be accurately and fully condensed into two hours – films can only give a flavour of a life, not the whole, gritty, balanced detail, just as you can’t condense a novel into a poem. What will get left out and what will be left?
  • Actors bring their own acting and real life experiences to bear on their roles – would Gwyneth Paltrow and Blythe Danner bring anything of their own, good relationship to the acted relationship between Sylvia Plath and Aurelia Plath?
  • Hype – whilst necessary to bring audiences to the film, it can also be (unintentionally) off-putting. “Sylvia” was billed as “the untold story” and “based on the emotional true story”. Both these claims are patently problematic. There are many biographies of Sylvia Plath, her story has been picked over, analysed and re-told for decades, so how many stories of her life can be left untold? Unless her missing final journal is found, there can be no untold story: only new versions of existing stories. Using “untold” in the sense of “her story has never been told in this matter with this script before” is too narrow a definition of “untold”. I think “emotional true story” is meant to be read as “emotional, true story” with the “emotional” warning those who want an action movie to go away and “true story” a hook to get the audiences to believe this is authentic and not based on some of the more ridiculous or biased theories in circulation. But what if the story isn’t the version I believe or the version you believe? Without the original characters being able to say this scene’s wrong or this scene’s right, all anyone can know of the story is speculation (albeit speculation based on carefully study and reading) so how “true” can the film be?

I expected “Sylvia” to be uncomfortable to watch. I hoped to be surprised and find a film about how the poems came to be written.

 Sylvia DVD box cover

“Sylvia” – Film Review

The opening image is of Sylvia lying in a white sheet, the image clearly taken from “Edge”, one of the last poems she wrote. She could be dead (the woman in the poem is).

A voiceover talks of a tree, each branch a path she chose in life, each leaf a poem. It’s autumn and the leaves blow away. I like the metaphor or poems like leaves, the tree has to let go of them and let the wind decide their fate. Just as a poet lets go of a poem one it’s sent out for publication and the readers get to decide its fate.

The “Edge”/Sylvia opens an eye. She is not dead. But the implication is that her life is foreshadowed by death. This has failed on one of my four criteria already.

The film opens properly in Cambridge, Sylvia cycling through the streets eager for the latest copy of St Botolphs Review. We see her crushed by the comments on her poems, “potential” (not there yet), “bourgeois” (as an insult – not of the right class in a class-ridden society), “ambitious” (not a good attribute for a poet) and worse of all “commercial” (poetry should never be commercial but have higher aims).  However, her eye is drawn to a poem by Ted Hughes and at the launch party, she demands to be introduced to him. He dances with her despite being with another date. This scene is biographically faithful. Ted takes her pearl earring as a keepsake (this motif is picked up again later).

After making love, Ted asks about the scar near one of Sylvia’s eyes. She tells him about climbing into the crawlspace in the cellar with a glass of water and pile of sleeping pills. “Did you ever have something you wanted to erase?” she asks, before explaining she took too many pills and her mother and brother found her. It explains the mechanics of what she did, but not the why. This is a significant omission.

There is a wonderful scene where the pair are punting on the Cam. Cows appear to be watching. Ted comments on the intelligence of cows. Sylvia asks if they would prefer Milton or Chaucer. Ted decides Chaucer and Sylvia stands to recite “The Wife of Bath.” The scene may never have happened, but that’s irrelevant. It shows Ted grounded in nature delighting in this passionate, spontaneous woman in love with literature and him. The pair are complementary, sharing and she is drawing out the poet in him. If there are more scenes like this, I could forgive the opening failure.

This scene is underlined by the next. Sylvia sits at a typewriter under a notice board pinned with correspondence from editors. Ted’s kissing her. However, the film implies she’d sending out his poems and doesn’t clarify that is she also sending out hers. The film moves to the acceptance of “The Hawk in the Rain” in an American competition Ted didn’t know he’d entered with its invite to America. This prompts a marriage proposal – the implication being so they can travel together.

The wedding ceremony is perfunctory and Sylvia is wearing a shocking shade of fuchsia, an odd choice for a “pink woolen suit dress” (from Sylvia’s journal) provided by Aurelia. The film fails to explain it had to be low key and secret as Sylvia feared she’d lose her Fulbright scholarship if it was discovered she had got married (it was only afterwards they found out it didn’t matter). The date’s not mentioned either, but the date, 16 June, was specifically chosen because of its links with Joyce’s Bloomsday.

The film jumps to America and Ted meets his mother-in-law Aurelia Plath (in life he met he before this, but a film doesn’t have time to explore the earlier meetings). Tellingly Sylvia asks her mother, “Why can’t you be happy for me?” Her mother says, “I’m always supportive.” Sylvia feels her mother’s disappointment. Actually she and Ted got on reasonably well, but she was more worried about how he was going to earn enough to support her daughter and potential grandchildren. Sylvia points out she can sell stories and both can teach.

Unfortunately the film doesn’t have enough space to tease out the fact that Sylvia’s attitude towards earning and paying her way in the marriage was unusual for the time where women did work after marriage but generally expected to become stay at home mothers when children arrived. It’s also in direct contrast to Aurelia’s own experience. Aurelia married a man 22 years her senior who asked her to give up her teaching job and become a housewife. She did, thinking she could have a houseful of student guests and brilliant dinner table discussions, which didn’t happen as Otto Plath tended to spread papers which could not be disturbed over the dining table. Aurelia sacrificed her career; Sylvia clearly does not intend to.

Aurelia asks what she should say. Sylvia says she should like Ted. Part of this liking Ted includes showing him photos of Sylvia’s father, Otto Plath, and mentioning the crawlspace incident (again how and not why). She suggests to Ted that Sylvia likes him because she usually frightens men but Ted frightens her. This is acceptable back story information being fed in.

The film Sylvia and Ted settle in Cape Cod. Ted goes fishing and writes. Sylvia is baking instead of writing. On a boat trip, Sylvia recites “Full Fathom Five” as a way of explaining an even earlier suicide attempt when she was nine (shortly after her father died), walked into the waves and swam out of her depth. A storm brews, the film used the image of an empty boat being tugged by a rescue boat. It’s a troubling image, showing again the foreshadowing. (The incident is based on a truth, Ted and Sylvia were caught out by a storm and after a terrifying time, the storm blew out and Ted began to show Sylvia how to fish and they both returned with a respectable catch of flounders).

There’s a glimpse of Sylvia teaching. She didn’t enjoy teaching as it left her too drained to write. She leaves class and hurries into one of Ted’s readings. Naturally he’s the centre of admiring glances and curiosity about his Yorkshire accent (Daniel Craig does this well without labouring it). Sylvia excuses herself and drives home. A female student turns up with a manuscript she says Ted said he’d look at. Sylvia snatches the manuscript and slams the door in the student’s face, waiting with a tormented expression for Ted’s return. “She’s nobody, a student. I took pity on her. She had these poems, I said I’d look at them,” he explains. He realises Sylvia thinks they’re having an affair and denies it. In the morning he suggests returning to England, blaming America and teaching for having a detrimental effect on their work – if Sylvia can write, maybe she won’t be so jealous is the logic. After class, Sylvia goes to meet Ted but he’s not where they arranged to meet so she looks for him and finds him talking to the female student who’d dropped off the manuscript. It’s clear from their body language and the student’s sudden exit when she sees Sylvia that something more intimate has been going on. Ted and Sylvia go home, row, she sits in the car in the rain and then returns, asking him to never leave her.

The incident is back to front. Sylvia didn’t accuse Ted of having an affair until she was sure he was. The filmmakers are setting the scene for a later affair. But the scene here suggests Ted didn’t have an affair with the student until Sylvia suggested it and he thought he might as well be damned for something he did do. Here it makes Sylvia’s jealous rage unreasonable. Whilst the intensity of her jealously was unreasonable, she did have reason for her rage. The birth of her younger brother, who was asthmatic and frequently suffered bronchitis, coincided with Otto Plath’s health deteriorating. Already coping with an ill husband and an ill baby, Aurelia sometimes sent Sylvia to her grandparents. Sylvia saw her brother as a rival for her mother’s affection and learnt to write letters to her mother acting out the role of a dutiful daughter. Sylvia learnt that if she portrayed herself as behaving just as she intuited her mother wanted, she would get approval. Of course she was always in fear of being abandoned and never fully grieved her father’s death (Aurelia decided the children shouldn’t attend the funeral).

The film jumps to 1960 and London, Frieda has been born and “The Colossus” just published. Sylvia has the humiliation of being unrecognised at her own launch party and a critic suggesting she’s in competition with Ted (she never was). She scours the newspapers for reviews, finally finding one by Alan Alvarez. Ted tries to reassure her it is a good review, but can’t help her with her disappointment. Suddenly Sylvia and Ted are showing the Weevils around their flat as they are in the process of moving to Devon. The Weevils are invited down for a weekend. The odd thing about the scenes in London is that baby Frieda is always seen with Sylvia and Sylvia is bottle-feeding her. Sylvia breastfed Frieda (and her second child, Nick, until her milk dried up) and Ted was a relatively hands-on father. He adored his daughter and played with her and read nursery rhymes and poems.

The film’s Court Green is dismal, the scenery is drab browns and greys, the exterior shows damp countryside. Yet Sylvia painted furniture white and opened up Court Green to light. The Weevils visit, there’s a walk in the countryside and dinner. Sylvia resents this elegant, glamorous presence. The resentment is recognisable and understandable to any new mother: exhaustion from night feeds and disturbed sleep, the constant changing of plans to fit a feeding schedule and that post-natal frumpiness – Sylvia described herself as “cow-heavy” – don’t leave anyone feeling or looking their best. Alone with Ted in the kitchen she accuses him of an affair. Blaming tiredness, she asks the Weevils to leave in the morning, “If you had two small children, you’d know how it feels.” Of course, the childless couple don’t and David is baffled by Sylvia’s behaviour. The Weevils leave. Ted leaves for London – the film doesn’t clarify he’s actually going to record a programme for the BBC. This time the film and biography agree. Sylvia did suspect Ted and Assia Weevil of an affair before they were aware their attraction was anything more than flirting. On Ted’s return from his recording, Sylvia asks him to leave, after he discovers she’d burnt his manuscripts.

The glaring omission from this scene is Aurelia. At the time Aurelia was staying with Ted and Sylvia. Aurelia let it be known she wasn’t going to interfere, that Ted and Sylvia had to sort things out. Yet she didn’t. She urged her daughter to divorce Ted and return to America. Sylvia hadn’t appreciated that in playing the role of deserted wife, she’d created an opening for her mother to ask her back to America. Sylvia knew this would be disastrous: that being a continent apart enabled her to keep her mother at arm’s length and escape the claustrophobic relationship the two had. Aurelia clearly saw the chance to get her daughter back. It is strange that Sylvia and Aurelia’s contacts in America urged Sylvia to divorce Ted. They had all taken Sylvia’s side of the story at face value and accepted it. Not one of them asked if Ted had a story, let alone what his version of events was. This is telling: clearly Aurelia was interfering. Her absence in the film here is unjustified.

The next scene is a failure too. Ted has left and Sylvia is shown putting Nick and Frieda in the car and driving down to the beach. It’s winter so the beach is wet, grey and misty. Sylvia stops the car and gets out, walking out so she’s paddling in the sea looking out. Worse, the windscreen wipers on the car are still operating, suggesting that this Sylvia had deliberately left her children in a car with the engine running. This is totally out of character. A shout from Frieda distracts Sylvia and she returns to the car. Again we have yet another scene foreshadowing her death.

Suddenly Sylvia’s in Court Green writing poems in tears, bizarrely. At the time, Sylvia primarily wrote her poems between 4 – 6 am, working and editing through until lunch. She wrote the poems “in a fever” (Sylvia’s words in a letter to Ruth Fainlight) and was clearly tipping towards hypomania, only her grounding in a firm routine enabled her to keep control and overcome her insomnia. She was buzzing with energy, writing and making plans to return to London for the winter and then back to Court Green in the Spring, already suggesting Ruth Fainlight and her family stay. Then the film jumps to a private reading of “Daddy” to Alan Alvarez in London. Gwyneth Paltrow’s reading is too polite to compare with Sylvia’s actual reading, but this is a minor blemish. She’s planning to move back to London.

London is covered in a chocolate-box snow storm – not severe enough to suggest that pipes froze and traffic ground to a halt or the sheer effort involved in bundling up two pre-school age children to walk to the phone box. Sylvia’s new flat hadn’t had the phone installed and it wasn’t installed while she was there. Ted visits to see the children and attempts reconciliation. Sylvia won’t have him back until he leaves Assia for good. The film shows her writing “The Moon and the Yew Tree” which was actually a suggested creative writing exercise from Ted while they were still in Devon. It yielded three poems (“The Moon and the Yew Tree”, “Little Fugue” and “Grosse Fugue”) and an essay (on the differences between prose and poetry).

Alvarez is a useful condensation of several characters and in the film acts as a go-between for Ted and Sylvia. Alvarez sees Ted’s despair and visits Sylvia for dinner, where she’s wearing pearl earrings just as she was when she first met Ted. Concluding Ted wasn’t going to leave Assia, Sylvia begins trying out different roles and trying to find a new life for herself. She tells Alvarez she’s thinking of taking a lover. He reads this as a pass at him, tells her she’s a great poet but that she shouldn’t throw Ted away over an affair. This was advice passed on via different characters and Sylvia vacillated between divorcing Ted and starting a new life whilst also hoping for reconciliation. She wasn’t scared of single motherhood and knew she could work to support herself, but something held her back. She appeared to be numbed into indecision.

There’s a tearful evening with Professor Thomas who rented the flat downstairs from Sylvia. What the film doesn’t explain is that she was upset over a review of her novel “The Bell Jar” appearing in “The Observer” next to one of Ted’s poems. Not knowing that prompt, makes a conversation with a stranger she only knows in passing about “conjuring up” Assia because she most feared losing Ted and her worry she’ll lose her babies too, rather dramatic. Although it is biographical.

Next morning, Sylvia makes the walk to the phone box with no coat or children. She phones a friend who can’t have her to stay and then phones Doctor Horder (she was actually in regular contact with Doctor Horder who was trying to find a hospital bed for her). Suddenly she’s back in the flat counting out pills but putting them back. We get the hint already: stop foreshadowing.

Setting out wine for two and dressing up in a cocktail dress, she opens the door to Ted who tells her she looks amazing. She tells him she wants to see him, denying she’s taking pills and denying the pass at Alvarez. They make love. She talks of going back to Court Green as a family and implores Ted to leave “her” (i.e. Assia). Ted tells her Assia is pregnant so can’t be left. Sylvia is left in shock as Ted leaves. This scene is out of character for Ted. Assia was pregnant and Sylvia did find out, but it wasn’t from Ted (who might not have been completely sure the baby was his; the film doesn’t focus on Assia’s backstory or the affair so here is not the space to discuss it). If Ted had told Sylvia, he wouldn’t have left her on her own. He knew she was vulnerable and still cared. (In reality, Sylvia did dress up and go out to meet someone on that night, but no one’s been able to establish who as Sylvia’s journal from the period is missing.) The scene is probably to illustrate that both clearly still had feelings for each other, but that throwaway “I can’t. She’s pregnant” from Ted completely spoils the effect and the tone of the scene changes from chance of reconciliation to the relationship being completely over and Sylvia’s hopes dashed.

Left alone, Sylvia dresses and goes down to see Professor Thomas, apparently to buy to stamps but actually to tell him a nurse is coming to help with the children at nine in the morning (it’s now around midnight). This is important as she wanted to make sure Professor Thomas would answer the front door and let the nurse into the block of flats. After hovering in the hallway, Sylvia returns to her own flat. She leaves bread and milk for the children and tapes over the kitchen door. The film cuts to the next scene where the nurse and a neighbour break in, rescue the children and an ambulance is called for Sylvia’s body.

The final scene, wonderfully controlled by Daniel Craig, has a despairing Ted Hughes look down at Sylvia’s desk and reach out to touch the manuscript of “Ariel”. He’s a huge shame he doesn’t pick it up and read one of the poems. Daniel Craig is certainly capable of doing a poem justice. It would also have reminded the film’s audience about the poetry.

It’s a huge shame then that the film relies on the over-simplistic conclusion she died because she couldn’t live without Ted Hughes. By cutting Aurelia out from a key scene and throwing in continual foreshadowings, “Sylvia” is reduced to a tragic love story of a tragic woman. But Sylvia was intelligent, independent, determined to earn a living from writing (she wasn’t going to be Ted’s housewife) and absolutely passionate about poetry.

“Sylvia” has its strengths:-

  • It tells the basic story reasonably accurately
  • The scene where Sylvia is reading Chaucer as Ted punts them along the Cam is a very good illustration of their early relationship.
  • Ted mostly keeps in character (except for the scene where he tells Sylvia Assia is pregnant)
  • The poetry works, except where “The Moon and the Yew Tree” is used out of sequence for the purposes of the plot.
  • Using Alvarez’s character as representing conversations and advice given by several different friends works.
  • The final scene where Ted discovers the “Ariel” manuscript.

It also has weaknesses:-

  • The bizarre beach scene where Sylvia is completely of character and leaves her two children in the car
  • The failure to explore the relationship between Sylvia and Aurelia
  • The constant foreshadowing. Sylvia never lived in the shadow of suicide.
  • Making Sylvia depressed when she was writing the poems in “Ariel”
  • The failure to draw parallels between the crawlspace incident and her final attempt at suicide
  • The reduction of key scenes to what happened rather than exploring why.

I set out four main concerns before watching the film. This is how “Sylvia” measured up:-

  1. The limitations of the medium of film itself – “Sylvia” successfully acknowledged and worked around these
  2. The main character was recognisably Sylvia Plath – she was at the beginning, but the scenes at Court Green slipped out of character although back in London she was back to being recognisable
  3. It had to be about the poetry – reasonably so, the film did focus on poetry at the beginning of Ted and Sylvia’s relationship but let the poetry drift out of focus towards the end, which is where reading one of the poems from “Ariel” would have helped.
  4. Her life was not foreshadowed by her death – failed.

Ultimately then, it wasn’t a bad film, but it’s not one I can recommend.

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2 Responses to ““Sylvia” – film review”

  1. Viola Ash Says:

    i loved the review. . and am stunned by each precise observation you made. Also a few physical observations, for instance, the wiper, the coat. . i didnt notice them having watched ‘Sylvia’ twice. . It would be wonderful to someday read a review by you on ‘Fur: An Imaginary Story of Diane Arbus,’ and ‘The Hours.’ Thank you miss; you truly made my day 🙂

  2. Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” « Emma Lee’s Blog Says:

    […] Whilst her death was undeniably tragic, I can’t see Sylvia Plath’s life as one of tragedy. In my review of the film “Sylvia” I argued that her life was not foreshadowed by her death. Even “Ariel”, the collection she was […]


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