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Sylvia - Preview & US reaction



Preview by: Jack Foley

IT HAS been selected as the closing film of this year’s London Film Festival and arrives amid some lukewarm US reviews and a fair amount of controversy.

Sylvia is based on the passionate and turbulent marriage of American poet and novelist, Sylvia Plath, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, and English poet, Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), and is described on the festival website as ‘a classic exploration of creativity and the nature of love’.

Yet it was savaged by some US critics, as well as the couple’s only daughter, who branded it ‘insensitive’, before declaring that she would never see it, ‘in a million years’.

Needless to say, given the personality behind the biopic, Sylvia is never designed to be easy or simple veiwing. For, it was while still a student at Smith College that Plath first attempted suicide, and her fictionalised account of this period, The Bell Jar, has inspired and influenced two generations of readers.

In 1955, Plath came to England on a Fulbright Scholarship, and, in Cambridge, she met and married the dashing Hughes, cementing one of the literary world’s most volatile partnerships.

Christine (Rain) Jeffs’ movie follows their seven-year marriage, and attempts to portray the joy and the pain of their love. It also offers a trenchant take on the difficulties Plath faced as a woman in the late 50s and early 60s, trying to juggle her writing with her role as a wife and mother.

Paltrow, who has been committed to the role for a number of years, has won a lot of acclaim for her performance, even among critics who disliked the film, so it is little surprise to find that she has fiercely defended it against both the bad press and the negative reaction from Plath’s daughter.

She insists the film respects its famous subjects and said she felt it was unfair that the UK media should pick up on the US reaction towards it, before they had the chance to see it, and judge it, for themselves.

She went on to describe the movie as ‘a very intelligent, well-handled, emotional piece, as opposed to a salacious, gossipy film’.

Yet given the current furore surrounding it, the film’s prominence at this year’s festival is sure to make it one of this year’s biggest talking points. And don’t bet against Paltrow featuring among this year’s Oscars nominations, given the strong word of mouth generating about her performance.

Festival-goers will have the chance to judge for themselves on November 6, at the closing night gala.

US reaction

Sadly, critics in America were divided over the merits of Paltrow’s latest, with reviews split pretty evenly between positive and negative.

The Hollywood Reporter, for instance, summed up the negative vibe, by stating that Sylvia is ‘an exercise in drudgery, with nothing particularly insightful or revealing to say about the charter member of the Suicidal Poets Society and the artistic endeavor in which she would make her indelible mark’.

While speaking for the positives, Entertainment Weekly declared it to be ‘the richest role Paltrow has had since Shakespeare in Love, and she rises to the challenge’.

More sitting on the fence, was the Los Angeles Times, which felt that, ‘aside from Paltrow's performance, Sylvia is neither a film so spectacular it shouldn't be missed, nor something so tepid you have to stay away’.

The New York Times, meanwhile, opined that ‘it is Plath's writing that represents ... her surest claim on our attention. The makers of Sylvia may, to some degree, have neglected this brilliant, unsettling and tragically foreshortened body of work, but they have not betrayed it’.

While USA Today felt that ‘the lead performances lift the film above melodrama, but they also expose the glaring holes in the screenplay’.

The New York Post wrote that ‘Paltrow is clearly committed to plumbing the depths of Plath's suffering, but this frigid and inaccessible period piece wears its glumness like a shroud’.

While Reelviews decided that Sylvia was ‘a standard melodrama that takes its grim tragedy and encases it in a veneer of self-conscious artsyness’.

Rolling Stone felt that ‘one of the fiercest love stories of the last century is reduced to Star Is Born pap’, while the Los Angeles Daily News wrote that ‘nobody expects a movie about Sylvia Plath to be a pleasant affair. But we could have hoped that Sylvia might have buoyed its grimness with more variety and imagination’.

Slightly more positive, however, was LA Weekly, which opined that it ‘…more or less take the Hughes line, evoking, through testy dialogue and alternately claustrophobic and idyllic mise en scene, the continuing challenge, and occasional delirium, of marriage to a brilliant manic-depressive’.

Concluding this overview, however, is Box Office Magazine, which concluded that ‘Sylvia is probably best left for the poet's legions of feminist and literary-minded fans who expect nothing less than bleak seriousness in the biopic of their beloved writer’.

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