A Movie Headed Down The Wrong Plath

The question that hovers over "Sylvia" is not Why did the gifted poet Sylvia Plath kill herself? but Why would anyone want to make a movie about it? And who, apart from the cultists obsessed with her glamorous, doomed marriage to British poet Ted Hughes, would want to watch it?

Director Christine Jeffs and writer John Brownlow keep an intimate focus on the couple's relationship, which begins quite sexily at a Cambridge dance. The seductive Fulbright scholar and the heartthrob Hughes immediately strike sparks, and marriage and kids quickly follow. But the good times sour fast, as his career and womanizing soar, and her jealousy, paranoia and depression drag her down. After they separate--a period of rage-and-grief-driven creativity during which she carves out the famous "Ariel" poems--she spirals into suicidal madness.

It's not the actors' fault that "Sylvia" is less a tragedy than a depressing case study: Paltrow digs deep to give us a thoroughly convincing (and not particularly likable) Plath, and, as Hughes, the saturnine Daniel Craig (who looks more like the young Jack Kerouac) smolders with the best of them. But the film's claustrophobic, color-coordinated dourness yields little illumination, and as the surging violins accompany our heroine's unraveling mind, the movie comes queasily close to romanticizing suicide. I knew I was supposed to feel something, but what?