Talented writers with troubled lives

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Last year was a good one for movies about gifted women, with figures ranging from Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman in "The Hours") to contemporary writer Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep in "Adaptation") on the wide screen.

This year is starting to look equally strong for women - and I'm not talking about "Kill Bill: Vol. 1," although Quentin Tarantino's choice of Uma Thurman as the world's toughest warrior does bear out the theme.

Like the 2002 movies I've mentioned, this week's contributions center on talented writers with troubled lives, although in other ways "Sylvia" and "Veronica Guerin" are very different.

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Playing a great poet

I was skeptical about "Sylvia" from the moment I heard Gwyneth Paltrow was slated to play the great American poet, who wrote a fiercely concentrated body of brilliant verse (some of it published in this newspaper) before taking her life at age 30 in 1963.

I wasn't all that impressed with Ms. Paltrow's literary turns in "Shakespeare in Love" and "Possession," and I thought she'd be too, well, cute to convincingly portray Plath, whose melancholy beauty has intrigued me since I first saw Rollie McKenna's famous photograph of her years ago. How smart Plath looks in that photo, but also so sad - not a quality I immediately link with Paltrow.

My forebodings were exaggerated. Paltrow's performance in "Sylvia" doesn't have Oscar- worthy depth, but it's a solid, sincere portrayal that captures enough sides of Plath's complex personality to enrich the movie, directed with impressive visual power by New Zealand filmmaker Christine Jeffs.

In typical biopic style, "Sylvia" doesn't chronicle Plath's entire life. It begins with her days as an American student at Cambridge University in England, where she meets Ted Hughes, her future husband and (after her death) the British poet laureate.

Hughes stayed silent about his intimate knowledge of Plath until publishing "The Birthday Letters," his final book of poems, a year before his passing in 1998.

Many have imputed Plath's unhappiness to Hughes, often stressing his extramarital affair with a woman they both knew.

While the movie tries to be fair about this, letting us know her suicide attempts began long before she met him, it still leaves the impression that Hughes's insensitivity was the ultimate culprit.

In other ways, too, the film is far from complete. Plath's struggle with insanity is sketchily given, and her several hospitalizations for this are omitted.

Nor do we hear the energetic discussions of language and literature that must have taken place between Plath and Hughes, two highly intellectual writers. We receive only a few hints of the painstaking, mind-bending work that goes into crafting a note- worthy poem.

As usual in movies about artists - last year's dismaying "Frida" is a good example - creativity is presented in "Sylvia" as a result of pure emotions, not an intricate blend of strong feelings and hard, rigorous thought.

What makes "Sylvia" worth viewing is its vivid sense of mood and atmosphere.

It's a reminder that even celebrated poets are people like the rest of us - weighted with imperfections that are sometimes exotic and scary, sometimes more ordinary and gratuitous than you'd guess from commonly accepted legends about their lives.

By the way, I said earlier that Paltrow's acting isn't of Oscar-worthy caliber, but that doesn't mean she'll be absent from the coming race. Oscar voters positively swoon over portrayals like this. I expect to see her winning smile up there with the rest of them when the nominations are unveiled on Jan. 27.

Hollywood's muckraker

"Veronica Guerin" stars Cate Blanchett, whose career first skyrocketed with her Oscar- nominated work in "Elizabeth," where she played the fabled British queen.

Her new character is less famous but just as real - a courageous Irish reporter who put her life on the line in a crusade against the ruthless thugs who'd taken over Dublin's big-money narcotics trade.

The movie starts on a comic note, with Ms. Guerin triumphing over a judge who's fed up with all the speeding tickets she's collected.

It soon turns serious and even grim, though, tracing her not-quite-fearless campaign to track down and expose the drug kingpins she so despises.

Vigorously directed by Joel Schumacher, the film is closer to a suspense thriller than a journalistic report.

But it gains energy and credibility from skillful acting by a largely Irish cast, including such standbys as Brenda Fricker and Gerard McSorley.

Not to mention Ms. Blanchett, even if she does hail from Australia rather than Ireland itself. She's another charismatic star whose presence in the Oscar race wouldn't surprise me in the least.

Both films are rated R. "Sylvia" contains sex, nudity, and profanity. "Veronica Guerin" has a drug-related plot as well as violence and vulgarity.

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