Biopics, for all their Oscar-winning tendencies, are as formulaic as summer blockbusters. The early years, demonstrating burgeoning talent; the rise to fame; the tortured relationship; the eventual tragic death. It's all part of The Tumultuous Life of the Artist, whether you're watching Auto Focus, Pollack, Man on the Moon or any of a number of such true-life portraits from the last 10 or so years.
Sylvia, Christine Jeffs' story of poet Sylvia Plath, is as paint-by-numbers as Bad Boys II, turning Plath's torment (she committed suicide at age 30) into an easily digestible story that progresses along a tidy, straight line.
The crafting of a coherent story from a mess of factsthe hallmark of a watchable biopicis forgivable when that story is moving, interesting or filled with any sort of urgency. But Jeffs has made a curiously flat film, starting with Sylvia (Gwyneth Paltrow, the best thing about the film) as a fresh-faced exchange student in England, where she meets fellow student and poet Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig). The two fall in love quickly and marry even quicker, heading to the U.S. to start their respective careers.
Ted becomes an acclaimed poet within a short time, but Sylvia travels a rougher road. The couple have two children but are ultimately driven apart by Ted's affair with one of their friends, and Sylvia finally commits suicide, famously by sticking her head in an oven.
My brief summary has about as much life as Jeffs' film, which manages to make Plath's emotionally wrenching story into an exercise in connecting the dots. Even the avowed Plath fanatic I brought with me to the screeningwho warned me several times that she would crywasn't moved once.
Only Paltrow's performance saves the film from being a complete dud. Even without a strong script, she sells every moment of Sylvia's torment and joy, her devastation when Ted takes up with another woman, and her absolute loneliness that eventually leads to suicide. Craig, too, does a good job as Ted, and their chemistry is believable, even if not much else is.
Plath's daughter has denounced the film as disrespectful, and in a way she's right. In turning the poet's life into a package, the filmmakers have done a disservice both to her memory and to their audience.