Professor Thomas: God no, I thought you were Canadian.
The story follows Sylvia and Ted through the aftermath of their spontaneous relationship, the stifling jealousy and obsessive paranoia resulting from literary recognition, Ted's adultery and Sylvia's eventual progression from angsty nihilism to full-blown suicidal shut-in. We also witness the curious and unexpected effects their decisions have on their family and friends. This is a wise film. It's implied but never implicitly stated that artists might make poor lovers because they sap each other's inspiration, or perhaps one might sap the inspiration from the other, intangibly destroying them from the inside out. I was relieved that the film refrained from overly demonizing Hughes's cruelty but instead portrayed him as a man overreacting to a situation he is unable to cope with.
These people are not insane, they are just really sad. They love each other, but they love the fevered muse of poetry more. It is a crutch they have adapted to face the cruel realities of the world. Sylvia is a devoted, well-meaning woman but her intensely defeatist personality-- born from the death of her father and a failed childhood suicide-- is too much for her husband to bare. It was so sad to see him close himself off in the last part of the movie, denying Sylvia her last chance for emotional support. Both are too busy crafting words to care about pretty concepts like feminism or parenthood. Sylvia contemplates cheating on Hughes as one might consider ordering fast-food, and dismisses the idea just as fleetingly. As romantic poets go the two fall madly in love and take a shot at domesticity out of a sense of ingrained obligation to that love, but as artists they have no choice but to take shelter in their own words when all of it starts to unravel.
Some scenes could have been a little bit longer (I hate it when a movie builds up a series of moments only to fade away seconds later) but there is a lot of ground to cover. The parts involving the generation of poetry are very well done, and the movie never over embellishes them to the point of pretentiousness. Some of the dialogue is just beautiful. I loved Sylvia's many transcendent epiphanies throughout the movie. At one point she confides in dismay to a friend a fact of life that many a drunken Russian novelist discovered long ago: if you dwell too long on your own fear you will make your fear come true. Paltrow is a great actress and some of her expressions, particularly when Edward does something to hurt her, just about broke my heart. The scene at the very end when she knocks on her landlord's door is fascinating.
Many viewers seem to misinterpret this as a "downer" movie because of the depressive states of the characters. But Sylvia's eventual suicide is not the point of the movie. It is established as an inevitability early in the film, and from history. Since we already know the outcome the film doesn't waste our time with false optimism, instead opting for a dread mood that finds inspiration in the character's struggles. Loss and despair spur the artists to action, as most of the best work on the planet is born from pain and fire. I applaud Sylvia for not glossing that over. The scenes of intimacy between the two are exhilarating, not just because Paltrow and Craig are easy on the eyes, but because it is passion born of longing, it is sustenance for the soul.
This one might be a little racy for the classrooms, and as mentioned before the pacing is a little shaky mostly due to the pacing of the scenes themselves. It is however a gorgeously filmed movie and anyone with a mature appreciation for how art imitates life, and vise-versa, should check it out. I knew next to nothing about the two leads going in but emerged with a greater appreciation for their lives and craft.