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A Matter of Substance



How does one show a creative person on film? Do we focus on the aesthetics or on the life, and if it is the former can we expect much narrative, and if the latter much more than a biopic? These thoughts arise out of viewing Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia, an almost completely conventional account of the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. It works surprisingly well, or rather modestly, because it neither becomes a film about creativity (like 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, La Belle Noiseuse and The Quince Tree Sun), nor a standard creative biopic. It instead concentrates on what happens when a woman of meagre interior resources collides with a man who turns his strong inner resources into nothing less than a life force and a belief system. Plath may well have been a brilliant poet but she never seemed to be singularly so, and at the beginning of the film we hear her in voice-over discussing what she might become. As she views her life as a tree, she sees one branch a husband and family, another, her career as a writer, another a glittering job in academia. She is the Waspish woman of possibilities, but next to Hughes’s assertive singularity, next to Hughes’ absolute insistence that he is a poet who wants to transform the way people think about nature coursing through us, she seems creatively anaemic, unfocused.

If we think of the two poets not as characters in a film, but as substances, we can understand better its minor achievement. It manages, under a welter of feminist criticism that has turned Plath into a martyr and Hughes into a phallocentric monster, to give back to the relationship a certain elemental force; and this is why we talk of substances over characters. As characters the film would struggle to remove the weight of expectation Hughes and Plath would be forced to work through. But, from the perspective of substances, there is a volume to Hughes that is missing from Plath, with Ted writing poetry less to become part of the poetic community, in the broadest sense, than magnifying his own possibilities in the immediate sense. This is not Eliot’s notion of creativity out of tradition, but creativity out of creation – about being part of a world of which poetry was only a branch of the tree of life. Where for Plath, nature serves as a metaphor for her life opportunities, Hughes seemed to want to create out of the very bark. He appeared to believe in nature not as pretty poetic imagery, but as the essence of life from which poetry is drawn. Everything takes on a blunt actuality –even religion. In The poem ‘Theology’, Hughes says: “No, the serpent did not/Seduce Eve to the apple./All that’s simply/Corruption of the facts. Adam ate the apple./ Eve ate Adam./ The serpent ate Eve./ This is the dark intestine…” If Plath was an ethereal poet who wrote from weakness, Hughes writes from brute strength. If Al Alvarez in his book The Savage God can talk of Robert Lowell’s influence on Plath, in the way he would have “breakdowns and was haunted at every crisis by family ghosts” and “wrote without evasions”, then Hughes wasn’t so much haunted by family as absorbed by surroundings that weren’t only much bigger than family but also more encompassing than the human.

This isn’t to say anything about the poems’ merits; for Martin Seymour-Smith reckons, for example, “there is doubt about his sensibility, the quality of his understanding, his technique and his intellectual equipment.” But this is not the place to question the quality of the poetry , but rather to address the quantity of life, and though the film calls itself Sylvia, the title suggests a biopic strength when what the film examines is a human weakness. A title like a woman without substance might have been nearer the mark; such a title would have given credence to the moments in the film that offer biopic predictability. When a friend tells her not to get her hopes up over Ted, Sylvia asks why and the friend says that “him and his crowd – all they care about is poetry. Anything else is a distraction.” Sylvia talks of Hughes as her Black Marauder with the wistful tones of one who wants to be overrun by a personality so much stronger than her own. When Sylvia comes back one night after it seems Hughes has lost interest, her flatmate says that he’s been trying to reach her. When the flatmate hands over the address he’s left, Sylvia snatches it and dashes out into the night to find him.

But if the film offers more than cliché it lies in the desperate need on Plath’s part to find someone to substantiate her, to give her a life force that she seemed otherwise willing to drain out from herself, evident in some of the poems Al Alvarez quotes in The Savage God. Whether it’ is ‘Kindness’, with its “The blood-jet is poetry/There is no stopping it/You hand me two children, two roses”, or ‘Daddy’ with “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through”, the poetry finds a strength out of weakness. It is the voice of one who is ferociously debilitated, and the film could have done more with this as almost an aesthetic choice. If the film suggests Hughes wanted to and readily escaped from the expectations of influence, and that “nervous preference for gentility above all else” (in Alvarez’s words), Plath was working against a different, no less gentle American tradition. Like Lowell and Anne Sexton she was writing against the fine form poetry of the New Criticism, moving away from poetry that expressed the form more than the self. For Lowell, Sexton and Plath wanted to reveal the fractured soul through their poetry perhaps more than the elegance of form, no mater if Alvarez saw Plath as very different from Hughes, as someone whose “unusual creative intelligence and awareness seem not essentially at odds with the reality of their everyday worlds…Instead their particular gift is to clarify and intensify the received world.”

So if form serves the fractured self on Plath’s part, and Hughes, taking into account Seymour-Smith’s comment, allowed form to fracture against strength of self, did that mean Hughes was going to destroy Plath? In a piece on Hughes’ letters in the Guardian Review, Blake Morrison quotes Hughes admitting “I was the only person who could have helped her”, and elsewhere Hughes says “no doubt where the blame lies”. But what we’re proposing here, and what the film alludes to, is that maybe Hughes had no choice but to destroy someone so much weaker than himself.  If the robust meets the fragile, if solids meet liquids, then what choice do the solids have?

Throughout a film that focuses almost exclusively on the relationship between Hughes and Plath, we have a charismatic man and a possessive woman. Though the film alludes to Hughes’ womanizing, it much more concentrates on his charm, as if Hughes’ problem for Plath isn’t womanizing, per se, but the possibility of womanizing, of cashing in on his charisma. Whether it is a scene where he first meets Plath’s mother’s friends, doing a reading one evening at a university, or charming a pretty young student, it is not just the threat of infidelity, but the constant overshadowing that leads to Plath’s sense of invisibility. For this overshadowing that leads to invisibility is present elsewhere. “Can’t be easy for her. Married to that,” a reviewer says to her. For someone who so looks for approval – evident in the scene when she asks her mother what she thinks of Ted – life with Hughes seemed a constant slight, and a slight that was as much other people’s fault as Hughes’s.

What we are proposing the film does, however conventional it happens to be, is offer a perspective not on power as such – with the strong, egoistic man and the weak, brow-beaten woman – but the almost inevitable overpowering of one person over another due to the substantial differences that are givens of character. This isn’t to be any more essentialist than to say people cannot readily change not so much their personalities but the substance of their being, and that one can hardly blame Hughes for a resiliance so much greater than Plath’s. But it is here that the skill of the film resides in what must be something of a relative accident: in the casting.

Quite simply, Daniel Craig is a vastly more confident performer than Gwyneth Paltrow. Craig embodies the role the way that Paltrow occupies hers. Film is full of occupational actors and embodied actors, and in certain roles occupation is more fruitful than embodiment: this isn’t always a qualitative argument. In the musical, occupation serves the lightness of tone much better than embodiment, and so when Gilles Deleuze in a passage from Cinema 1: The Time Image says of Astaire and Kelly and the differences between them “it s like the two extremes of grace as defined by Kleist,” where on the one hand you have the body of man deprived of consciousness and the other with infinite consciousness. In each instance however you have a lightness of existence that doesn’t embody but simply occupies. The same is often true of the romantic comedy, and vital to the genre is how completely the actor can occupy a role without slipping into embodying it. If Cary Grant remains the absolute master of the ‘lighter’ genres it lies partly in his capacity to express anger without resorting to rage. In Only Angels Have Wings, in Notorious, in Bringing Up Baby, there are scenes where Grant tears strips off Rita Hayworth, Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn respectively, but even when there is love and bitterness intermingling in Notorious, Grant still contains his anger within the range of his persona. He remains aware of his performative dimension: that of an occupying rather than embodying actor.

This is something Craig as an actor demolishes as he searches out embodiment over occupation. One of the major differences between Craig and Pierce Brosnan’s Bond lies in this distinction. But how does that play out in Sylvia, where Plath is performed by an actress who is not especially one thing or another, but that her limitations as an actress leads to this useful contrast between an embodied Hughes and an occupied Plath? Whether it is in Emma, Shakespeare in Love, The Talented Mr Ripley, A Perfect Murder or The Royal Tenenbaums, Paltrow seems to play a role with a modest, apprentice-like sense of appeal, like the understudy constantly given the lead, while always remaining in quality the understudy. Another actress, a better actress might have given a stronger, weightier performance, but cost the film its theme – the substantial difference between these two poets.

It’s what makes an ostensibly clichéd scene of some interest: Plath and Hughes’ first meeting. As Hughes stand leaning against a pillar in the dance hall, Plath goes over and tells him that she has read his poems and that she thought they were the real thing: “great big, crashing poems.” Hughes accepts the compliment and whisks her off onto the dance floor, and once again a hoary scene is given modest significance through the physical force in Hughes; the lightness of Plath.

One of the great films of misplaced romance is Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing. There is in Roeg’s film the idea that certain people should never meet, that a commingling of certain forces creates bad blood. Was Plath’s and Hughes’ a bad blood relationship, and an inversion of that contoured genre, the impossible romance? If films like Casablanca up to The English Patient and Atonement suggest the impossibility of a relationship given the variables in a situation – in each instance the second world war especially – does the bad blood film create a sense of colliding inevitability? If the impossible romance so often offers us the missed encounter, the bad blood film – from Bad Timing to War of the Roses, from The Piano Teacher to Nil by Mouth – often has the encounter too many. When Hughes turns up one evening long after he’s left her for another woman, Plath has put on a nice dress, applied the lipstick, lit the candles and awaits her black marauder. This is the femme fatale moment as she tries to win him back, but the fatality will be her own, as Hughes tells her that his new woman is pregnant. Where the impossible romance expects us to grieve the doomed nature of characters that cannot quite come together due either to cruel fate or social obstacle, in the bad blood film we mourn much more the meeting that will destroy one partner or the other. Whether it is Art Garfunkel’s character in Bad Timing returning to have sex one more time with the fluid and fragile Theresa Russell, or Erika Kohut inviting Walter into her home in The Piano Teacher, here we have substances that shouldn’t be commingling.

The strength of the film lies in the ‘substantial’ differences between the two actors that bring out this bad blood – not bad blood in the sense of anger, especially, but almost an emotional variation on the bad transfusion, a mismatch of blood types that can lead to coagulation and possible death. Here we have the paltry Paltrow of limited range, with a voice eager to please but devoid of strength: as if its eagerness to please has destroyed its own sonorous integrity. Craig’s is the opposite: a voice that holds its own to the detriment of the social event. In one scene Hughes is visiting Plath’s family in the States shortly after they’ve got married, and some of Plath’s mother’s friends coo at the distinctness of Hughes’s voice. But after they ask him to say something else, he says “I need a drink, excuse me ladies”: a cursory politeness is offered and nothing more.

However, it isn’t only the difference in vocal strength. It is also there in physical disposition. When Plath and Hughes first meet, when she comments on his great, crashing poems, her head juts forward in eagerness; Hughes’s in predatory assuredness as he presumptuously takes her onto the dance floor. This is the first of many Hughes victories in a relationship not so much based on power, but that cannot quite find a dynamic outside of it. For Hughes found himself in a position of power not just with Plath, but in life. As Alvarez states: “a figure has emerged on the drab scene of British poetry, powerful and undeniable…He was a tall, strong-looking man…He was in command.”  In one scene the characters are out rowing and Plath talks about her writer’s block. “There’s no secret to it”, Hughes insists. “You’ve just got to pick a subject and…stick your head into it”. A method that works wonderfully well for Hughes, but for Plath it is as if the subject needs to be suicide, and the gas oven was what she had to stick her head into. As Alvarez says, quoting Freud, “life loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked.” Plath’s poetry seemed to come out of this risk, from her own dance with the death drive.

But does the film also suggest that Hughes was part of this very driving force? Plath refers to him as we’ve noted as her dark marauder, and seems to throw herself at him as if into an abyss. Whatever the biographical truth, Craig plays Hughes like a man capable of not so much embracing another as encompassing them. Looking in certain scenes like Richard Burton, Craig vibrates with energy and physically looks like he’s made to resemble a black hole into which others can fall. In one scene quite late in the film, as he leaves Plath with the kids at their country cottage, his face is creviced and exhausted, as if his body is strong but his face about to collapse. It looks like the face of a man with a strong constitution but a restless mind that robs him of sleep. Plath’s face in contrast looks almost serenely unlined, if slightly fretful. If she is a worrier she looks like she gets her eight hours of sleep. Hughes looks like he gets no more than four of five, almost alluded to when he says to her that he’ll probably book into a B and B: friends are probably fed up with him sleeping on their floor, he adds.

One of the film’s qualities resides in the statement matched by the physical. How often in films are we told how terrible someone looks even though they look exactly the same in the preceding scene and the following one? Craig, with his bloodshot eyes and strained visage, gives an impressive sense of an energy force willing to drive itself into the ground. But he also gives the impression of one who would take others with him. It makes sense when we think of the scene much earlier in the film where Sylvia asks her mother what she makes of Ted and her mother replies, “he’s very…I don’t know…different.” It’s a simple and snobbish statement and yet quite precise. At every moment throughout the film we see this contrast between white-bread Plath and the coal-haired, ashen-faced Hughes.

It is a contrast especially brought out in visually the key scene in the film. Where Plath and Hughes’ first sex scene is shot in the predictable manner of intimate close-ups and medium long shots of the bodies commingling, this later scene of the couple after making love offers some visual distinction. This is a post-coital image of bodies not so much commingling as irretrievably intertwined, and just after it Plath says to Hughes that before they met they were just two halves walking around with big, gaping holes, but when they found each other they were finally whole. This we feel might have been true for Plath, but was it true for Hughes? Was he not whole to start with, and capable of adding to that wholeness by swallowing the emotionally undernourished whole as well?

Clearly what Jeffs film explores with a mixture of accident and intention, is the problem of a deep love between two people but where the depth of need in one person is so much greater than the need in the other. Hughes might in letters to friends quoted above suggest the blame finally lay with him, but this isn’t really something the film offers. It instead explores what happens when substance meets the insubstantial, when the transfusion from one body to the next leads to the unintentional coagulation of one of their souls. The film explores this problematic surprisingly well, and in Craig, especially, has an actor capable of inquiring into this issue of transfusion, embodying and encompassing. It is a journey we can expect him to continue in films in the future; but, perhaps quite aptly, with actresses other than Paltrow.


©Tony McKibbin