Sylvia Plath is a woman who seems to have it all – a talent for poetry, good looks and a fantastic husband in the poet Ted Hughes. Unfortunately, her life has been dogged by severe depression, leading to suicide attempts on more than one occasion. Marriage to Ted helps with the situation for a while; at least until it is clear that his constant philandering do not help matters. After two children, the couple decide that enough is enough and Ted leaves to live with his mistress. Sylvia continues to hold out for the possibility that her marriage isn’t over, and Ted certainly still loves his wife, but as Ted’s mistress is pregnant, a reconciliation isn’t on the cards. Sylvia’s depression begins to take over her life once again.
Before Sylvia was released, any doubted that Gwyneth Paltrow would be able to portray the various layers of Plath’s feelings, not that anyone had doubts about her aptitude as an actress, but rather that it is incredibly difficult to portray someone suffering from depression on screen without making them seem annoying and pointless. Paltrow exceeded expectations. She portrayed Sylvia’s feelings well – she neither made her out to be a weirdo or a saint – but showed her in all her true colours. Watching it objectively, a non-sufferer, provided that they were watching with an open mind, should have managed to take on board some of the pain and suffering that depression brings. That is the sign of a good performance and Paltrow deserves to be commended for it.
Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes was no so great. There is little doubt that Ted Hughes was a philanderer and did not help Sylvia’s situation, but Sylvia suffered from depression before she met him and that probably would have come out whether he was a cheat or not. However, it was impossible to ever forget that it was Daniel Craig acting. His northern accent, although perhaps not technically wrong, just didn’t seem natural, and was very off-putting. Had Hughes’ role been meatier, Craig may have had more of a chance to redeem himself, but as it is, he didn’t. Hughes was not portrayed as a total monster, which is what many think of him, but that probably has more to do with the director and writer than Craig himself.
There is no doubt that this film does at least attempt to educate people about depression. The problem with depression is that it is a silent illness, unlike other forms of mental illness that are more visually obvious, and it really is hard to educate anyone else about that darkness that some people suffer from. Bearing that in mind, the director, Christine Jeffs, did a good job in promoting the condition without making it seem unnatural or too over-the-top. However, if you are strongly of the mentality that thinks depression is ‘all in the mind’ and it is just a matter of ‘pulling yourself together,’ then you are unlikely to have your mind changed by this.
There is an important social lesson to be learned from this film and Sylvia’s life. Had she been born in a later generation, she may well have been able to cope with her illness. Unfortunately, at the time, it was accepted that a woman should marry, have children and play second fiddle to her husband. None of this helped Sylvia – she had high expectations of her own work, and seeing it shadowed by her husband’s did not help. Nor did the fact that she was expected to have children, keep house and husband and still try to fit in time to write. And depression was something that wasn’t talked about or treated – certainly there is nothing in the film to suggest that she sought medical help. Thankfully, things are very different today – that doesn’t mean that people don’t suffer from depression, but there are a great many more ways to manage it.
As so often happens with films that are based on someone’s life, Sylvia is not the most exciting of films. It really does rely on Gwyneth Paltrow making us believe that she is suffering from depression. It is not, therefore, likely to please anyone who is after a bit of action or a light-hearted romance. It is very dark in tone and anyone watching needs to be prepared for that. There was not much mention of either Ted’s or Sylvia’s work during the film – the odd poem/piece of writing is narrated, but that is all. However, it is primarily a film about the damage that depression can do and so there was perhaps not a great need for more poetry.
This film is a must for anyone who is interested in finding out more about Sylvia Plath as a woman and what made her tick. Also for anyone interested in depression and how it can affect people. If you are looking for a love story or something mindless to get lost in, this film is not for you. Otherwise, it is definitely recommended.