Film

DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE

In a trio of indie contenders, Sylvia Plath’s story is a seductive downer

BRIAN D. JOHNSON October 27 2003
Film

DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE

In a trio of indie contenders, Sylvia Plath’s story is a seductive downer

BRIAN D. JOHNSON October 27 2003

DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE

Film

In a trio of indie contenders, Sylvia Plath’s story is a seductive downer

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

IN THE HOURS, Nicole Kidman plays a tormented writer who fills her pockets with stones, walks into a river and drowns. In Frida, Salma Hayek portrays a rebel painter who spends her life in physical agony and dies in what was rumoured to be a suicide. In Iris, Judi Dench is a free-spirited novelist drifting to death from Alzheimer’s disease. In Veronica Guerin, Cate Blanchett plays a renegade journalist who is murdered by the men she’s investigating. And now, in Sylvia, Gwyneth Paltrow tackles the role of a tortured poet who kills herself in her kitchen while her children sleep. A pattern begins to emerge, a curious sub-genre of biopic. If you are an actress looking for a serious, all-consuming role, the kind that gets nominated for an Oscar, it seems the best route is to star in a true story about a creative iconoclast who dies a tragic death—preferably one who can be viewed as a martyr to her own uncontainable imagination.

Sylvia Plath is the Che Guevara of feminist martyrs. Chronically depressed, trapped by motherhood, and left in the literary dust by her mate, this well-bred American writer finally upstages her womanizing husband, British poet Ted Hughes, finessing her career with a harrowing exit. It’s tempting to scoff at the notion of a well-bred Hollywood star like Gwyneth Paltrow portraying Plath, as if it were a vanity project. Just as we scoffed at the notion of Kidman being so presumptuous as to play Virginia Woolf with a fake nose—before she proved her skeptics wrong with an Oscar-winning tour de force.

In fact, Paltrow acquits herself admirably in Sylvia. The movie’s limitations lie in the earnest sentiments of a script that portrays Plath as a victim of circumstance rather than her own depressive psyche. The drama is wrapped in a score of swelling strings, music that never goes against the emotional grain, but wallows in the tragedy—so unlike the haunting Philip Glass fugues in The Hours. And if Paltrow’s Sylvia (Ophelia as a mad housewife) lacks the prickly intelligence of Kidman’s Virginia, perhaps that’s because Plath’s heroism is less poetic than Woolf’s, although her story is juicier, and more dramatic. Putting your head in an oven and turning on the gas after leaving your two small children some milk and two slices of buttered bread somehow seems less noble than walking mad and childless into a river.

That said, there’s much to like about Sylvia, although I have to confess a bias that makes it hard to judge. I love movies about writers, especially writers married to writers, and jealous of each other’s talent, perhaps because I’m a writer, and I’m married to one. I derive a perverse kick from attempts to portray the uncinematic frustration of writing—the blocked author glowering at a blank screen and a blinking cursor, or (in Plath’s case) tearing the paper out of her typewriter in a rage, or (better still) throwing her husband’s poetry into a bonfire.

Sylvia, like Frida, is a portrait of an artist who’s overshadowed by her famous, philandering husband. But Frida reduced Kalho and Diego Rivera to squabbling lovers who never found the time to discuss art. In Sylvia, there’s endless talk about writing, and not writing. Before Plath falls for Hughes at Cambridge in 1956, she falls for his poetry. Then she’s kissing him almost before they’ve met. He talks about poetry as “a weapon, a bloody big bomb”; she writes prophetic lines about her “black marauder... one day he’ll be the death of me.”

With piercing eyes, a thatch of dark hair and a cognac voice, Daniel Craig (Road to Perdition) gives a stark, lucid performance as the poet who cast himself as a bird of prey in collections like Crow and The Hawk in the Rain. Hughes cheats, lies and ditches Plath for another woman, but somehow doesn’t come across as a villain. And there’s no sense that he’s forcing her into drudgery. During a summer in Cape Cod, as she throws her energy into baking cakes, he berates her for not writing. She just complains: “You go for a bike ride and come back with an epic in hexameter. I try to write and I get a bake sale.” In trying to kindle a redemptive pathos for her heroine, New Zealand director Christine Jeffs ends up portraying Plath as a bit of a whiner. At one point, after unloading her woes on a downstairs neighbour (a droll Michael Gambon), she says, “You must assume I’m some stupid American bitch.” He replies, “Oh, not at all, I assumed you were Canadian.” And maybe that’s the problem with this Plath. She’s too nice. Sylvia insists that “there’s nothing behind my eyes—I’m a negative person,” but I’m not convinced. She deserves to be at least as dark as her husband, not just the sad victim in a juicy tale of doomed romance.

If Sylvia is the gloomy pleasure of the fall season, a seductive downer, then Pieces of April is the feel-good sleeper, an amiable comedy that’s lobbed like a flaming arrow into the big cold heart of American Thanksgiving. But it, too, revolves around the story of a disaffected mother facing death. April (Katie Holmes) is a kohl-eyed punk estranged from her mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson), who’s dying of cancer. To make amends, she volunteers to host Thanksgiving dinner at her squalid apartment, which she shares with her black boyfriend (Derek Luke) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Trouble starts when the stove breaks down as April is about to cook the turkey. Soon she’s knocking on neighbours’ doors, trying to borrow an oven. Meanwhile Joy and her messed-up family— a Dagwood dad (Oliver Platt), a goody-twoshoes daughter (Alison Pill), her photographer brother (John Gallagher Jr.), and their senile grandma (Alice Drummond)—embark on a shambling road trip to New York.

The low-budget feature debut from writerdirector Peter Hedges—who scripted What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and About a Boy—hits a lot of broadly comic notes. As April tries to find a berth for her turkey, she meets a multicultural carnival of neighbours. And Holmes seems too lovable for a bad girl who left such a grim impression on her family. But the movie has an irresistible, off-kilter charm. And Clarkson shines as the acerbic, and ironically named, Joy—a mother with a spirited lack of affection for her children.

Patricia Clarkson also figures in The Station Agent, another strong first feature that offers an antidote to Hollywood formula. It’s a beautifully spare story of three characters who strike up an unusual friendship in rural Newjersey: Finbar (Peter Dinklage), a reclusive dwarf who inherits an abandoned railway station; Joe (Bobby Cannavale), a gregarious, nattering coffee vendor; and Olivia (Clarkson), a painter hiding from a tragic past. The Station Agent is a triumph of character over plot, of emotion over sentiment. And Dinklage projects a solemn charisma. In a story of small details—one that deals with the pain of his stature without dwelling on it— he gives an unforgettable performance. fTH

THIS sleeper, a feelgood comedy, lobs a flaming arrow into the big cold heart of American Thanksgiving