Before discussing Sylvia, I’d like to quickly go though what are in my mind the four basic film categories: good-good films, bad-bad films, good-bad films and bad-good films.
The first two categories are pretty easy to define. Good-good films are those that are universally recognised as being excellent movies, displaying superb production values and a great cast (Manhattan, The Third Man and Goodfellas, for instance). Bad-bad films are the complete opposite: movies that look rubbish and are rubbish (The Wedding Planner and John Carpenter’s Vampires are two excellent examples). Good-bad films are ones you feel you shouldn’t like, but that you end up really enjoying (comedies such as Dumb and Dumber and Dude: Where’s My Car?, can often feature strongly in this category). However, it is the fourth category that is most difficult to define. For bad-good films are movies that have been directed with skill, display examples of fine acting and have the courage to aim higher than the lowest-common denominator - but which still remain pretty awful viewing experiences.
For my money, Christine Jeff’s Sylvia is a perfect example of a bad-good movie.
I feel somewhat guilty making this claim, because in a way I have a lot of respect for the film. It has a heart and an intelligence that are admirable and it isn’t afraid to take a few risks. It is at times beautifully shot, has enlisted the talents of some pretty fine actors, and throughout displays a passion for its subject matter. Yet I still left the cinema pretty much hating it.
(I am prepared to admit that this may well be because I am an ignorant man who doesn’t understand the tragedy inherent in Sylvia Plath’s life and work. I also appreciate that there is a (possibly considerable) cinema-going public who will find Sylviaa beautifully poignant movie. In fact, when watching Sylvia I looked around at the audience to see if anyone else was biting down on their shaking fist, and was surprised to see many wet faces of people who were obviously deeply affected by the film they had come to see).
I realised I had developed a dislike of the film right from the start, when the young Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow), joins fellow Cambridge student Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) and his mates in their dingy basement, participating in a competition to see who can recite poetry the quickest. Now, I fully appreciate that there probably wasn’t much to do as a student in Cambridge in the 1950’s except for joining the Communist Party, but a poetry-speed-reciting competition? Could 1950s Cambridge students really have been this pretentious?
Any doubts are fully confirmed shortly afterwards, when Ted and Sylvia go punting along the Cam and come to a field of cows. It is here that Sylvia turns to Ted and asks, ‘Shakespeare or Chaucer?’ and Ted replies ‘Chaucer’, Sylvia then proceeds to say (without any visible irony), ‘Ladies, I give you the Wife of Bath’ and starts to recite Chaucer to the bloody cows!
After the cows, Ted and Sylvia get married, go to America, Ted becomes a successful poet and Sylvia gets writer’s block. She also tells Ted, whilst out in the sea and literally bobbing up and down the cinema screen on seven foot waves, that she once tried to drown herself. Given the fact that Sylvia had previously informed Ted that she once tried to kill herself by taking an overdose and crawled underneath her house and stayed there fore three days, it is not surprising that Daniel Craig as Ted from this point on displays a look of, ‘Christ, what have I let myself in for?’ Wherever they are, whatever they do, is Sylvia going to bring up the subject of suicide (‘ooh, did I ever tell you about the time I tried to inject 10cc of air into my blood stream?’ etc). Ted looks like he wants to scarper, but this is the 1950’s, he’s married, and he ain't going anywhere.
Now that Ted and Sylvia both realise that Sylvia has some serious issues, Ted tries to make things better by a) making Sylvia pregnant, b) moving to the most dark and depressing house in London and c) starting to shag anything in a short skirt. Surprisingly, Sylvia still gets sad, but instead of whacking on a bit of Dulux Daffodil White and making her house a bit brighter and less morbid, Ted and Sylvia decide to up sticks and move to a desolate farm house in Dorset, which manages the incredible feat of being even more overbearingly depressing than their previous abode. It is here that Sylvia rightly suspects her hubby of having an affair. When challenged, he leaves and she burns all his stuff.
All of this has taken what feels like 10 hours. It is at this point that I am sadly began willing Sylvia to reach her inevitable demise as quickly as possible. And even when it finally came, rather than feeling any pity for her, I found myself angry about the fact that before putting her head in the oven, she didn’t make sure her kids were nowhere in the vicinity. Anyway, the deed is done, the film’s over, and I leave depressed and angry, not quite believing that one film could make me quite so annoyed.
But even through my annoyance, I could appreciate the fact that Sylvia is not a bad-bad film. Gwyneth Paltrow gives an admirable performance, the film is directed well by Jeffs, John Brownlow makes an admirable stab at scripting a pretty meaty and heavyweight story, and the whole thing’s not stuffed with fart and tit jokes. But at the end of the day, I’m afraid that I just couldn’t stand this movie, and as such, I would personally warn anyone who’s planning to go and see it to think twice.
But like I said, it could just be because I’m a stupid man who doesn’t understand the inherent tragedy of Sylvia Plath. Or it might just be that I know a dull and depressing (and not in a good way) viewing experience when I see one…