Sylvia (Warner) (2003)

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Released 15-Jul-2004

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio & Animation
Menu Audio
Featurette-Behind The Scenes
Theatrical Trailer
Rating Rated M
Year Of Production 2003
Running Time 109:18
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (60:17) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Christine Jeffs

Warner Home Video
Starring Gwyneth Paltrow
Daniel Craig
Jared Harris
Blythe Danner
Michael Gambon
Amira Casar
Andrew Havill
Lucy Davenport
Liddy Holloway
David Birkin
Alison Bruce
Julian Firth
Jeremy Fowlds
Case ?
RPI $24.95 Music Gabriel Yared

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    Sylvia is a biopic of one of the last century's more celebrated female poets - Sylvia Plath. I have read none of her work, mainly knowing of her from female friends who sometimes raved about her undervalued talent, tortured life, and untimely death. Other than that, I knew that this young American was married to one of England's more celebrated recent male poets - Ted Hughes - who was ultimately made the Poet Laureate (the official poet of the Royal Family) of Britain from 1984-1998. However when I heard that the wonderful Gwyneth Paltrow (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Shakespeare in Love and The Royal Tenenbaums) was chosen to portray Plath in this film, I was really looking forward to reviewing it on DVD. I guess a reviewer's life sometimes has its share of disappointments - and I am sad to report that, overall, disappointment was the main feeling that this DVD left me with.

    The film begins as Sylvia Plath (Paltrow) hurtles on her bright red bicycle through crowded college grounds in 1956. A highly intelligent young woman, she was already a published poet - having written several hundred works whilst attending the prestigious women's Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her academic success at Smith resulted in Sylvia being awarded a Fulbright scholarship to attend that most prestigious of English universities - Cambridge. Shortly after her arrival she meets the critic of one of her recent works - Edward Hughes (Daniel Craig).

    Ted Hughes is a boisterous working class poet from Yorkshire - himself studying at Pembroke College Cambridge as the result of a scholarship. After meeting at a dance - where Sylvia famously bit him on the cheek - the two soon begin a deep and passionate relationship, with Plath hopelessly attracted by the earthy Hughes and his cadre of bohemian young friends. Within months the two are married and in 1957 head across the Atlantic to meet Sylvia's mother (Paltrow's real mother Blythe Danner) and progress their writing at a seaside cottage on the beautiful New England coast. Whilst Ted manages to secure a job teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Sylvia is unable to write a word and instead spends her days baking cakes for her new husband.

    We learn that Sylvia's life is not without its dark past. Her father died when she was only eight, and by 1952 following a nervous breakdown she had tried to kill herself with sleeping pills - crawling under the cellar of her home to die alone. Ted is not happy in America and by 1959 the two return to England, relocating to a country cottage in Devon by 1961. Still unable to write, Sylvia becomes increasingly depressed and endlessly paranoid that Ted is taking lovers. By 1963 the relationship between the two is irreversibly shattered by Sylvia's depression and Ted's infidelity. The two separate, leaving Sylvia (now with two children) to fend for herself in a small London flat. Whilst the couple evidently still love each other, it seems they simply cannot live with each other. Indeed, Sylvia can no longer live with herself and one night she seals the kitchen door with tape and wet towels, turns on the gas oven, and ends her own life.

    Sounds like fun doesn't it? Well, unsurprisingly, it isn't. The film presents one short period of Sylvia's short life (she was only thirty-one when she killed herself in 1963), and does so in a rather grindingly limited way. She is shown as chronically depressed, morbid and morose for almost all of the film. Surely there was more than this one side to her character? There is almost no use of her poetry in the film which seems like a missed opportunity - perhaps the director thought that would make it too artsy? This is the main failing of the film - it is so dour, so one-dimensional and so unforgiving that it becomes almost painful to watch. All credit to the makers - this is surely a tale worthy of telling - but I could not help wishing that it had a bit more light to go with the unrelenting shade...

    Paltrow and Craig do put in excellent performances and some of the cinematography is just lovely. The period feel is well evoked thanks to some great set design with the cars, furnishings and clothing looking wonderfully accurate. The bottom line is - well it's just too bloody depressing! I don't suggest it should have been made as a comedy or musical, but such sombre topics have been handled with much more aplomb - take The Hours as a great example. This is a worthy film, quite solidly made. Unless you have a particular interest in Hughes or Plath however, it is likely to be quite difficult to watch - and I certainly feel in no hurry to watch the film again.

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Transfer Quality


    The overall video transfer is reasonably good.

    The movie is presented anamorphically enhanced at 2.35:1 which is the original theatrical aspect ratio.

    The image sharpness varies a little, with close-ups typically satisfying but a tendency towards an overly soft image in middle-distance shots. There is a degree of grain or pixelisation present in some scenes which doesn't help the sharpness levels any.

    Black levels are reasonably deep and without a distracting level of low level noise. Shadow detail is reasonably good, although there is sometimes a loss of detail in some of the darker scenes. The colours feel rather muted throughout the film and tend to be rather restricted in range - this may be a deliberate choice on the part of the director. Generally there is a tendency towards darker blues and greens, which suit the grim feel to the story fairly well. Skin tones look pretty natural throughout.

    I noticed no major issues with compression artefacts. Aliasing was not a problem on my system. Edge enhancement crops up quite frequently through the film and can become mildly annoying on larger screens. The image looked solid enough, with no sign of telecine wobble.

    Surprisingly for such a recent movie there are a number of small film artefacts present - mainly visible as fleeting black specks.

    Disappointingly, there are no subtitles available.

    The disc is in a single sided and dual layered (RSDL) format with the brief layer change quite well placed during the dinner party at 60:17.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The audio transfer is perfectly adequate for a drama.

    I listened in full to the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track, encoded at 448 kbps. It has no major defects in the way of hiss or dropouts. There is also an English Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack present, encoded at 224 kbps. Both are perfectly adequate, but of course the 5.1 surround mix adds a greater feeling of space and depth to the audio.

    The dialogue is perfectly clear most of the time, but occasionally Craig mumbles his lines and he can be a touch hard to make out every now and again. I noticed no issues with loss of audio sync.

    Original music is attributed to Gabriel Yared (The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley). I enjoyed this piano, strings and woodwind score quite a lot, finding that its plaintive mood suited the feel of the film rather well. It's not something I would choose to listen to in isolation, but it serves its purpose well here.

    The soundstage for this film is, somewhat unsurprisingly, predominantly frontal. The centre speaker anchored the dialogue solidly, whilst the left and right front speakers get quite a workout from the musical score. There is a fair spread of sound across the front, with some localised effects cropping up from time to time.

    The surround speakers see more restrained use. They help to broaden the impact of the musical score, and occasionally deliver some minor ambience - for instance during the various party scenes or seascapes.

    There is nothing significant in the way of true LFE activity, which is unsurprising for a character driven drama such as this. The subwoofer does see some activity in supporting the score, but little else.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    There are very few extra features on offer here.


    The anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 menu is an animated affair accompanied by a loop of the musical score. It allows the choices of playing the film, selecting one of twenty chapter stops, selecting the audio format, or viewing the following extra features:

Behind The Scenes

    Running for 6:17 this short featurette allows cast and crew to provide their insights on the film. It is reasonably interesting, but is little more than a typical EPK piece. Presented full screen at 1.33:1 with letterboxed inserts from the film and a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack encoded at 224 kbps.


    Running for 1:56 and presented anamorphically enhanced at 1.78:1 with a Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack encoded at 224 kbps.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 release of this DVD is apparently burdened with six minutes of advertisements and misses out on the following features:

    It looks like the Region 4 release is the clear winner for a change.


    Sylvia tells the story of the love between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes - two significant poets of the latter half of the twentieth century. Their love is blighted by Plath's depression and Hughes' infidelities and the ultimate suicide of Sylvia seems almost inevitable from the start. Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig put in solid performances, supported by some great set design but the depressing storyline may make this too heavy going for most people to feel genuinely entertained. Worth a rental for fans of either of the poets, but a tough journey for most of us.

    The video transfer is fairly good.

    The audio transfer is adequate for a drama.

    Extras are very limited - but at least Region 4 gets some.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Daniel O'Donoghue (You think my bio is funny? Funny how?)
Sunday, August 01, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDMomitsu V880 upconverting DVI player, using DVI output
DisplaySanyo PLV-Z2 WXGA projector. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Digital Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable. This display device has a maximum native resolution of 720p.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials/Digital Video Essentials.
AmplificationOnkyo TX-SR600 with DD-EX and DTS-ES
SpeakersJensenSPX-9 fronts, Jensen SPX-13 Centre, Jensen SPX-5 surrounds, Jensen SPX-17 subwoofer

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