Putting Heart into Poetry and Turkey; Christine Jeffs' "Sylvia" and Peter Hedges' "Pieces of April"
by Peter Brunette
Strong but perilously vulnerable women are at the center of two new films. One is "Sylvia" (opening October 24), an imperfect but thoroughly satisfying biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow as poet Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963 at age 30. The other is "Pieces of April" (opening Friday), a refreshingly modest and heartfelt indie film that wowed audiences at Sundance in January. Utterly different in look, approach, and feel, both -- I'm happy to report -- are eminently worth seeing.
"Sylvia" is by far the bigger production of the two. For one thing, it stars the glamorous Gwyneth, who renders the doomed poet, visually and physically, in an uncanny and almost disconcerting fashion. Especially in medium shot, it feels as though Sylvia has been magically resurrected before our very eyes. Nor does Gwyneth merely play Gwyneth here; she's clearly put in some time studying Plath's speech patterns and mannerisms as well. Daniel Craig, best known for his role as Paul Newman's ruthless son in "The Road to Perdition," brings an intense dedication to the thankless role of poet-husband Ted Hughes, a figure who's been vilified for four decades by feminists who want to see Plath as the movement's secular saint.
Alas, Plath, whose poetry can be astonishingly raw and even vicious, was never a saint and probably would have been insulted to be so considered. Gratifyingly, the film takes great pains to remain evenhanded: while Hughes is undoubtedly a cad, he seems no more or less so than most men of that (or any?) era and anyway, the film argues, Plath more or less pushes him into his caddish infidelities through her paranoid jealousy. Other culprits are the confining roles for women that dominated the era plus, crucially, Plath's own lengthy history of mental illness and suicide attempts. There is, in other words, plenty of blame to go around and it feels right that Hughes doesn't, for once, have it all stuck on his back.
Director Christine Jeffs ("Rain") is especially good at re-creating the late '50s and early '60s and the headiness of lives lived in the pursuit of the poetic muse. Some virtues, though, overly extended, become vices, as for example the wonderfully haunting music whose primary voice, in the early part of the film, is triumphant, with a minor chord in counterpoint to signal the approaching tragedy. By the end when all is dark, however, the lingering note of triumph is seriously discordant and makes you think of nothing but itself when you should be thinking only of Sylvia. For the most part, though, the portrait presented here is a haunting, beautifully subtle one enhanced by good taste (her actual suicide, for example, is shown only indirectly) and superbly expressive cinematography.
"Pieces of April," the debut feature of novelist and screenwriter Peter Hedges ("What's Eating Gilbert Grape"), is equally autumnal in its own irreverent way. It also sticks to the formula for indie success established in the recent, thoroughly delightful "The Station Agent": write a good script, make your modest means a source of creativity rather than deprivation, and put Patricia Clarkson on screen as much as possible. Here Clarkson is a mother dying of cancer who reluctantly agrees to visit her estranged daughter April (Katie Holmes of "Dawson's Creek") for what may be the family's final Thanksgiving dinner together.
The digitally shot, score-less film, which cuts between April's hilariously inept attempts to prepare the turkey and the family's bickering approach to the city by car, is marked throughout by an intense effort to avoid TV clichés at all costs. Thus the above plot summary, while literally true, conveys exactly the opposite impression from what the film's really like. For one thing, all the characters, even the most minor, are given funny/sad, incongruous little bumps and rough edges that keep you guessing about what they're going to do or say next. (In this, it is the polar opposite of something like that TV show on steroids, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding.")
Some examples: At one point during the drive to the city, the ironically-named Joy (Clarkson) shocks her family, between episodes of vomiting, by pretending that she has died. April's competitive sister Beth (Alison Pill) gloats over every domestic victory over her sister, no matter how petty. Granny (Alice Drummond), whose dementia could have been played strictly for laughs, instead takes on the thematic contours and weight of the truth-telling Fool in "King Lear." The warm, polite and unthreatening Derek Luke ("Antwone Fisher") plays April's black boyfriend and, while this casting decision was obviously more than a bit calculated, it ends up functioning nicely as another indication of April's rebelliousness without having Racial Questions take over. (Which could also have made a very good film, but a very different one.) Best of all, the dinner itself -- sticking its tongue out at every other Thanksgiving movie ever made -- is delightfully positioned at the very end, in a series of still photos, as though it were little more than an afterthought.
In other words, "Pieces of April," happily, like "Sylvia," is a movie that someone has put some thought into. And some heart.