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(2003) (Gwyneth Paltrow, Daniel Craig) (R)

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Drama: Famed poet Sylvia Plath must deal with professional and personal insecurities that eventually drive her to the brink of self-destruction.
It's 1956 and Sylvia Plath (GWYNETH PALTROW) is a student at Cambridge. A hopeful poet, she's discouraged by a scathing review of her work by Edward "Ted" James Hughes (DANIEL CRAIG). Yet, when she eventually meets the fellow poet, she's instantly enamored with him, as are many ladies.

They're soon married and headed for America where he meets Sylvia's wary mother, Aurelia (BLYTHE DANNER), who reminds him to always be good to her, a point that's significant considering her past suicide attempts. The two settle in, but Sylvia is afflicted by a bad case of writer's block as well as jealousy of Ted's success and what she thinks are womanizing ways.

Despite the encouragement of Al Alvarez (JARED HARRIS) and later her downstairs neighbor, Professor Thomas (MICHAEL GAMBON), Sylvia soon begins a downward spiral into depression that eventually drives her to the brink of self-destruction.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The concept of the "troubled artist" has become such a stereotype, crutch and/or excuse for bad behavior that one tends to forget that it's a real if not medically diagnosed malady. Whether it's the case of such tormented souls using the arts as a means of addressing and/or releasing their demons, or developing such a syndrome due to long, hectic hours and/or power, riches and fame is debatable.

What isn't is that such people often end up doing themselves in via a dangerous habit, such as drugs or booze, or a successful suicide attempt. Since such artists are often complex and troubled beings, they usually make for "good" cinematic fodder.

In 2002 we had Virginia Woolf depicted in "The Hours," while 2003 brings us Sylvia Plath in the simply titled drama, "Sylvia." An American poet who battled her inner demons for years, she was the mother of two young children by fellow poet Edward James Hughes. Like Woolf, she took her own life (at the age of 31) and become more famous and better respected in death than she was in life.

As written by John Brownlow (a producer making his feature film writing debut) and directed by Christine Jeffs ("Rain"), the film covers the artist's life from her school years in 1956 up to her untimely but not altogether surprising death in 1963. For better or worse, one's knowledge of the eventual outcome obviously affects one's view of the cinematic journey getting there.

Coupled with the descent into depression plot and it isn't hard to discern that this won't be a cheery affair (there's very little much-needed comic relief). Nor is it remotely uplifting and the filmmakers haven't tempered that with any sort of complexity, as was the case with the multi-tiered "The Hours."

The result is an effort that will likely only play to fans of Plath and/or those in front of or behind the camera. Although the filmmakers and star Gwyneth Paltrow ("View From the Top," "Shallow Hal") do a decent job recreating and portraying the real woman, the fact that we're allowed little if any time or reason to sympathize with her - beyond default pity - steals a lot of the film's thunder.

It also doesn't help that the film occasionally gets too overwrought and/or overbearing (Gabriel Yared's score doesn't help matters). The result is a downer of an effort where sadly the only real intrigue is when her life and thus the film will come to an end via her own hands.

As a tale of an artist's downward spiral into jealousy, madness and suicidal depression, however, I guess one must say it's something of a success. Throw in the death of a parent during a child's formative years; insecurity over one's life, work and significant other; a husband with a wandering eye and "chick magnet" aura; and a perpetually crying baby and you have all of the needed ingredients for such a paralyzing descent.

Paltrow is believable in the role and competently portrays the real-life poet mixed with a mentally unstable and chronically depressed woman. Daniel Craig ("Road to Perdition," "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider") is decent as her moody and unfaithful husband who either causes and/or reacts to her jealousy. Blythe Danner ("Meet the Parents," "The Love Letter") briefly appears as Plathe's mother in a bit of art imitating life and Michael Gambon ("Open Range," "Charlotte Gray") plays a friendly downstairs neighbor.

Aside from the two lead roles, the rest of the performers have little to do with their characters, pretty much leaving Paltrow to carry the film. Alas, it seems that the heaviness of the subject matter weighs down her effort as well as our appreciation of it.

None of it's particularly bad mind you, but it just never engaged me at most any point. While others may have differing reactions to the offering, I never felt much beyond indifference, boredom and depression. Perhaps that's the point, but when compared to the multi-layered strategy of "The Hours," "Sylvia" feels too straightforward, mundane and uneventful. It rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 20, 2003 / Posted October 24, 2003

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