Sylvia Christine Jeffs

Sylvia Christine Jeffs
When troubled poet and novelist Sylvia Plath gassed herself in her London apartment 40 years ago, she left behind two young children, one tempestuous marriage and a body of work that, though small, would influence Women's Studies programs the world over. What no one could ever have anticipated was the insatiable interest in the details of her life that would follow in her wake, not to mention the length at which some would go to protect it. "They think I should give them my mother's words," Frieda Hughes says of her mother, the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, "to fill the mouth of their monster, their Sylvia suicide doll."

Christine Jeffs' cinematic version of the life of the writer is anything but monstrous. And perhaps that's the problem. Using as its focal point her tempestuous marriage to equally legendary poet Ted Hughes, the film is remarkable for having remained so neutral — a difficult task when you consider the two outsized personalities that lie at its centre, not to mention the mountain of stories both good and bad that accompany them. But in striving towards fairness, Jeffs has sacrificed much of what was so famously compelling about her subject. The result is a film that is too safe and, at times, dreadfully boring. Where, for instance, is the Sylvia Plath who struggled with her role as mother? What were the difficulties therein? None of these questions are answered sufficiently.

Some of the blame must be placed on John Brownlow's screenplay and its heavy reliance on Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters, the 1998 book of poems that, after years of silence in the face of derision by the feminist establishment who labelled him a "murderer," finally weighed in on their marriage. As Plath, Gwyneth Paltrow does much with what little she has but, ultimately, is hobbled by the director's strict observance to the marital version of her story. A shame when you consider how much material there is to the work with. (Alliance Atlantis)