Life at Cambridge University in 1956 is all about words and writers … aspiring American poet Sylvia Plath (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) has come to Cambridge to soak up the atmosphere and study literature. She meets fellow poet Edward [Ted] Hughes (by Daniel Craig), already very well known for his writing around campus and beyond. He is so different from men she’s known before – he exudes bad habits, risk and danger and she is drawn to him. He falls heavily in love with her too and romance blossoms amongst endless recitals of their much adored prose of Shakespeare and Chaucer. As can be the case with a literary genius, these two are both tortured souls, each in their own way. They marry and are blissfully happy, but the path of true love becomes unstable once Ted and Sylvia move to America to be nearer to her mother, Aurelia (by Blythe Danner). Ted charms everyone around him – he continues to write and Sylvia gets a job to support him, but her own writing isthwarted through her intellectual exhaustion and frustration at his apparent natural ease at producing endless marvellous poetry. He’s constantly distracted by other women and this starts to tell on Sylvia – already emotionally delicate. Things go from bad to worse for the couple and their marriage falters. They move back to England to focus on their writing and try to save their marriage. As things deteriorate, Sylvia finds a well of inspiration for her writing in her trauma, but it is slowly eating her away inside.The couple watch helplessly as their relationship disintegrates … leading to a tragic end.
This movie is very good. Clearly, the early lives of both Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were punctuated by trauma, which shaped them into the writers they became. Throughout the story, Sylvia admits to several attempts at suicide and her emotional fragility is clear. The scenes that depict her crumbling emotional state are done very well. As Ted Hughes, Daniel Craig does well too – he has the capability to portray emotions without having to say anything, which works well here. Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance is excellent in this difficult role and to my mind she should have received her Academy Award (Oscar) for this, rather than the award she somehow received for “Shakespeare in Love”. She resembles Plath very much too. The support roles by Blythe Danner and Michaell Gambon, who plays Professor Thomas, are strong. The movie features excerpts from Plath’s poems in appropriate places and the supporting soundtrack adds to the drama and desolation of the story. I thought it was a well put together piece, but I understand that Sylvia’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, has been critical of the film as in her view it sentimentalizes her mother’s death. The movie notes that Ted Hughes never spoke of his marriage to Sylvia until he published his own memoir, “Birthday Letters” a few weeks before he died in 1998. The audience is left with a lot of respect for Sylvia and after her death her writing became some of the most celebrated of the 20th century.
Made in 2003. Directed by Christine Jeffs