Sylvia (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Two thumbs down. Scoop's comments in white,

Before I saw this film, I was not particularly knowledgeable about the poetess Sylvia Plath. I know that she was an unlikely 20th century poet - not the expected wild-eyed Bohemian, but a bourgeois middle-American who looked like she would have been more at home in a Betty Crocker cook-off than in a Greenwich Village coffee shop (see her image to the right). I know that she tried to commit suicide several times, starting when she was ten years old, and coming very close to success in that endeavor between her junior and senior years at Smith. By her own count, as detailed in "Lady Lazarus", she tried to kill herself three times unsuccessfully. She finally succeeded at ending her life on the fourth attempt, when she stuck her head in an oven shortly after the unhappy dissolution of her marriage to poet Ted Hughes.

I know that many people consider her a great poet. I don't know about that. I don't like her work, but I'm not really interested in any 20th century poetry after T.S. Eliot, and I don't really get into morbid self-absorption, so that's just my taste kicking in. Let's assume she was top-drawer. But I'll tell you this. She sure wasn't much of a novelist. I read The Bell Jar and I found it to be completely without merit of any kind.

I also know that nobody really knows what the hell was wrong with her head. She was not abused or tortured in childhood. She never had much hardship in her life. She didn't experience the tragic death of any of her children. No major traumas like that. She was a brilliant student, an attractive woman, and a successful author. She had two beautiful children.

She was said to be a happy child until she was about ten, at which point her father died, and she gradually took on more and more manic-depressive behavior characteristics, and an increasing morbidity. In her life, and in her work, she talked about death so much that she made Jim Morrison seem as life-affirming as Zorba the Greek.

The death of a parent and the dissolution of a marriage are difficult circumstances, but similar things happen to most people, and they do not spend their lives sticking their heads in ovens or popping sleeping pills. Clearly she was messed up, and one naturally wonders if there is some explanation, some insight, perhaps to be found in her own words.

That is what I knew before I saw the movie. That is still all I know.

No further illumination, in fact not even that much illumination, will be found in this film, which simply hits upon some biographical highlights chronologically. It can't use her poetry to illuminate her mental condition, because Plath's estate would not allow her poetry to be quoted in this film. 

In fact, the script really didn't capture the nature of her mental illness. Ron Howard has taken some flack in his life for being a pedestrian, mainstream director, but he did quite a good job at demonstrating the nature of the mental illness in A Beautiful Mind, by using visual devices and by keeping some of the delusions hidden temporarily from the audience. These tactics allowed the audience to see through the eyes of the deranged mathematician, and to live in his reality. Sylvia accomplishes none of that. Whenever a depressive or paranoid episode is coming on, it alerts us and then suffocates us with the usual movie cliché - tragic and dissonant violin music.

In other words, this is a film about a mentally unhinged poet, yet it offers no insight into her mental condition, and never uses her poems. Sylvia Plath without the poetry and without some insight into her mental illness is about as interesting as "Oklahoma!" without the songs.

Some feminists have found Plath to be a symbolic victim of woman's inferior role in modern society, and they often claim that she was destroyed by devoting her life to, and giving up her own work for, a cheating, insensitive man. The film did, at least, give the axe to that theory, since it clearly shows that Plath's mental condition was just as bad before the failure of her relationship with Hughes, and that Hughes did everything he could to get her to stop playing housewife and start writing. Of course, his leaving hastened her decline, and was the direct cause of her final sayonara, but it was merely the straw that broke the camel's back.


Gwyneth Paltrow has two sex scenes. In the first, she shows her bum. In the second, which is very dark, she is seen from the side, and there are poorly-lit glimpses of her breasts and the top of her pubic area.

After the second scene, the camera lingers on her, sitting naked in good light, breasts clearly visible.

DVD info from Amazon

no meaningful features

This film was supposed to be the great return of Gwyneth Paltrow to serious, respectable cinema, after having been slumming in junk flicks for some time. Gwyn's performance is fine, but the movie is so insignificant that I don't expect her to get any award nominations, and very few people will ever get to see the performance in order to evaluate it. And to tell you the truth, she was overshadowed by a charismatic performance by Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes, just as Sylvia Plath was overshadowed by the real Hughes. In other words, Gwyn will have to wait a while to re-ignite her career, because this film won't do it

As you can see from the images to the right, Gwyneth does bear a certain passing resemblance to Plath at the same age.

By the way, it was quite nostalgic and appropriate to see the part of Sylvia Plath's mother played by Gwyneth's real mother, Blythe Danner.


Sylvia (2003) is a biopic of Sylvia Plath. If that name means nothing to you, than you will more than likely not find anything of interest here. Sylvia became a feminist hero and major poet with the posthumous publication of her last book of poems.

Her life was short, and depressing as hell. This film is long, and depressing as hell.

It starts with her attending Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. There she met and wed poet Ted Hughes. During their trip to America, we learn that she had been depressed since the death of her father when she was ten, once made a serious suicide attempt, and had also undergone electroshock and lots of therapy. Despite all that, she remained clinically depressed and was neurotically jealous of any woman near her husband. She eventually drove him to another woman. She threw him out, and started writing seriously while raising her two small children, but eventually the depression conquered her and she committed suicide.

The ending was telegraphed in the opening scene. The meeting and courtship at Cambridge was charmingly portrayed, and the dissolution of the marriage was also well recounted, but I am as much in the dark about what motivated her, what her dreams were, and what her body of work was like as I was before I watched it. Nor was their any insight as to why she would abandon her two children.

Sylvia was supposed to be the rebirth of Gwyneth Paltrow's career as a serious actress. Although she did a fine job, as did costar Daniel Craig, the material just did not make for an engaging or enjoyable story. I need a film to either entertain me or educate me. This film was less fun than a root canal to sit through, and taught me nothing useful, therefore failing both criteria.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 2.5/4, BBC 4/5.

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. IMDb voters score it 6.0/10. Yahoo voters score it a B-.
  • Box Office Mojo. A big-time, full-fledged bomb, it could never get past 109 screens, and grossed a bit more than a million dollars.

Miscellaneous ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this is a D+. Very weak, pointless biopic, somewhat redeemed by the highly capable stars." Tuna says , "This is a low C-. Fans of Plath may learn something about her from this. Or not. It is one I won't rewatch, and will purge it from my memory by morning.

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