The film picks up Plath's life in 1956, three years after the suicide attempt that she famously chronicled in the 1963 novel "The Bell Jar." In England as a Fulbright scholar, Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) meets upcoming poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), who engages her in a whirlwind romance that, after just four months, leads to their marriage. An idyllic beginning marked by mutual encouragement for each other's writing breaks down with the passing years, giving way to Plath's anger and jealousy--both at her husband's critical and commercial success, which overshadows her own poetic accomplishments, and his extramarital affair. Hughes' decision to leave his wife and their two children for another woman results in a period of intense creative output for Plath and what is generally considered her most electrifying poetry--as well as her eventual suicide.
Meticulous attention to detail, from the '50s-era clothing to the perfect recreation of Plath's changing hairstyles, is evident throughout "Sylvia," and Paltrow is convincing in capturing the poet's emotional highs and lows. Moreover, Craig's restrained portrayal of Hughes and Blythe Danner's depiction of Aurelia Plath, who represent opposing forces in Sylvia's life, skillfully avoid the respective traps of domineering, villainous husband and overprotective parent, favorite caricatures among Plath's most sympathetic biographers.
The film's bleakness, however, remains simply overpowering, from the opening quote of Plath's late poem "Lady Lazarus" ("Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well./I do it so it feels like hell") to her last lonely moments preparing breakfast for her two infant children before her suicide. And for those uninitiated to the angst that is Sylvia Plath, "Sylvia," despite the filmmakers' most respectful, and at times exquisite, efforts, offers no answers. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig, Jared Harris, Blythe Danner and Michael Gambon. Directed by Christine Jeffs. Written by John Brownlow. Produced by Alison Owen. A Focus release. Drama. Rated R for sexuality/nudity and language. Running time: 110 min