Sometimes something so wonderful appears on the big screen that I want to leap up like a shameless non-professional and hug it. Such is the case early on in the film Sylvia, a superb drama based on the brief life of writer Sylvia Plath. While boating in Cambridge, England, with her beau, Edward "Ted" Hughes (Daniel Craig), forever-young Fulbright scholar Sylvia spies some inquisitive cows and asks Ted if the intelligent animals prefer Chaucer or Milton. Before you can say "cinematic genius made manifest," Sylvia is standing up in the boat, theatrically reciting lines from "The Wife of Bath" to the contented bovines.
Happy critic -- happy, happy critic.
While it's likely that snooty literati and hyper-reverent gloom girls may find assorted faults with this portrait of the revered author, poet, wife, mother and suicide case, as a film it's mostly top-notch work. Kiwi director Christine Jeffs has taken the poignant, thoughtful screenplay of erstwhile documentarian John Brownlow and rendered it a moving mood piece of subtlety and ever-encroaching sorrow. This represents a decidedly non-sophomoric step for Jeffs, whose debut feature, Rain, was a mawkish soap opera about a confused girl's feelings that never delivered the pluvial onslaught of emotions it promised. From its longing and infidelities to the seaside cottage where the lovers summer and grumble, Sylvia (originally -- and better -- titled Ted and Sylvia) almost represents a sequel to Rain, albeit one that neatly eclipses its predecessor.
When we first meet Sylvia, she looks pretty darned dead, and tentative viewers will wonder if they'll be drinking "black and red agonies" for the next couple of hours. Fret not. Although the self-proclaimed Lady Lazarus staunchly declares her talent for the art of dying, we quickly cut to a forlorn tree on a melancholy plain scattering its helpless leaves to the bitter wind of mortality. Nowait. Then we cut to Sylvia cycling adorably through Cambridge to what can only be described as "Oscar music." Yes, even though Sylvia is a rather amazing movie on its own terms, as a marketable commodity, it's also this year's gender-swapped replay of the fiercely overrated A Beautiful Mind, with all that implies. But try to forget that.
Rather than zooming in on the bent-over glutes of Jennifer Connelly to establish the love interest here, Sylvia meets Ted by way of poetry -- hers vs. his, mainly -- and, instantly deciding that he's her one true love, she bites his head to seal the deal. For some reason, this doesn't bother him very much, and swiftly the two are married in an empty cathedral and bustle off to Boston, where Ted learns more than he may have wanted about Sylvia from her Martha Stewart-prototype mother, Aurelia (Paltrow's real mother, Blythe Danner). Much that will occur is foreshadowed in this shadow-free happy house, including the premature demise of Sylvia's "beekeeper" father and his daughter's subsequent detachment and early attempt to off herself. These scars inform much of the rest of the film.
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Frankly, it comes as a huge relief that L.A. girl Paltrow is finally not faking a British accent, and her commitment to the role is genuinely impressive; Possession is hereby forgiven. Her work here is more striking, because the character doesn't come across as particularly good company. Various biographies by the likes of Anne Stevenson and Eileen Aird have painted Plath as both a wonderful wife and mother, and a navel-gazing tragic romantic of a high order. But Paltrow keeps things suitably simple: She's a time bomb. The schnoz doesn't match, and the regal hairstyle purloined from Loreena McKennitt doesn't quite feel plausible (Plath killed herself in England just before the Beatles hit America), but overall this may be Paltrow's finest moment, well worth observing.
Since much hoopla will undoubtedly surround the actress, someone should also rave up Craig (Road to Perdition) for a standout performance as Hughes. It's a tricky role, playing the stiff British poet whose celebrated writing and sexual dalliances threaten to crush Sylvia's crippled psyche as the movie's tone shifts from honeymoon to heartbreak. His role is understated but very compelling, as we catch glimpses of the wild man beneath the good man. Likewise, Michael Gambon is touching as a kindly but confused neighbor with whom Sylvia shares some of her final moments. Jared Harris and Amira Casar are also stirring, as a dedicated editor and Ted's hot new flame, respectively.
Sylvia certainly isn't flawless. Its sets and locations become almost ludicrously gloomy as it rolls along, and the sense of geography borders on nonsensical: With extremely recognizable New Zealand terrain stepping in for New England, one wonders when the Whale Rider or some hobbits and elves will interrupt Sylvia's recreational writer's block. Stay with the mood of the poet and icon, however, and you'll be rewarded with one of the richest cinematic portraits of the year. Just brace yourself for Mandy Moore, or whatever, in the Anne Sexton picture that's sure to follow.