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Writing = Not Fun to Watch

Since Sylvia Plath took her life almost forty years ago, many a reader has been captivated by the brutal honesty of her prose and the stark metaphors in her poetry. Sylvia explores the tortured life of the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet/novelist whose work was largely ignored during her lifetime. Like all artist biopics, the success of Sylvia depends on making the work of its lead character compelling to the viewer. The challenge for the film will be making the writing process seem as intriguing as the writing itself.

The movie opens in the mid-50's when Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) is attending Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. After reading the poetry of Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig) in a new literary journal, she attends the kickoff gala in order to meet the man behind the words. After she recites his poetry to him, they fall in love and get married, all within a matter of months. However, the happiness only lasts a couple of years, as Hughes' affair with Assia Wevill (Amira Casar) leads to their separation.

As one would expect from a movie about a writer, the movie is not particularly talkative. This makes it doubly important that the film find a way to make the scenes where Ms. Plath is writing look interesting. Instead, the movie demonstrates exactly why writing never caught on as a spectator sport. Apparently, regardless whether someone is jotting down a grocery list or penning a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, both look equally mundane. There is a scene in the film where Plath says she writes every day from four till eight in the morning when the kids are asleep and the house is quiet. Over a period of 23 days, from October 11th to November 4th of 1962, she composed 25 of her most well known poems, including Ariel. That dedication to her craft is the essence of Sylvia Plath. Yet, we never get a sense of this visually. Sure, there are shots of Paltrow sitting at a desk scribbling on sheets of paper, but there is nothing to indicate Plath's urgency to write.

The other constant in Sylvia Plath's life was severe clinical depression. For so many artists, their talent comes at the price of obsession, and that obsession often leads to disenchantment and, eventually, depression. Plath was no exception. Again, the filmmakers have chosen something tremendously difficult to make interesting on screen. Depression is characterized by a desire to do nothing, and it is pretty damn hard to make nothing captivating. Paltrow does a noble job portraying a woman who's almost always on the edge of breakdown, but watching her weep, albeit convincingly, loses its effect rather quickly.

There is no doubt that Sylvia Plath was a fascinating woman, and after watching the film I did some reading to fill in some of the information gaps. Even from this small amount of research, it is clear that the film's focus is not on being historically accurate. For one, the movie paints Hughes and Plath as star-crossed lovers, while the reality of their relationship after the separation was much chillier. It also appears that they have ignored some of Hughes' more negative qualities in an effort to make him a more palatable character. Still, Sylvia's intention is to provide a glimpse into the manic world of Sylvia Plath, not a history lesson. Unfortunately, it does not do a very good job at either.

Stars: One out of Five