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"Sylvia" Meets "The Singing Detective" "In The Cut"
Reviewed by Dennis Morton

A rash of movies about writers has broken out. And it’s an eruption I welcome, even if the most widely anticipated of the lot is a bit of a disappointment. A few words about that one first.

"Sylvia"
, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, falls into the ‘bio pic’ genre. The eponymous Sylvia is the legendary poet Sylvia Plath, whose suicide mesmerized a generation of poetry readers. So many books have been written about Plath, her poetry and her marriage to Ted Hughes, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for a film to be made about her life.

Sadly, the celluloid "Sylvia" fails to sufficiently resuscitate the Plath legend. It’s not that Paltrow’s performance is lacking. And the film does get off to a good start with some bright banter among a gaggle of poets as director Christine Jeffs focuses on the Hughes / Plath courtship. But shortly thereafter the pacing of the film grinds to a lugubrious hum.

What’s missing from "Sylvia" is the poetry. The word is that Freida Hughes, Plath’s daughter and the executor of her estate, refused permission for the filmmakers to use Plath’s poems in the movie. It turns out to have been an insurmountable obstacle. What might have been a fascinating portrait of a talented poet simply runs out of steam.

That’s not the case with "The Singing Detective", a dark and brilliant hybrid of a movie. The protagonist in this faux noir is a writer of pulp fiction. By his own description he’s a prisoner in the cell of his skin. The movie is a series of writerly imaginings and flashbacks, and the entire story unfolds in a hospital. I would not normally share such details of the plot, but most of you probably know that the film is based on the highly successful BBC series of the same name.

What makes the movie so interesting, at least to me, is not the twists of plot and the blending of genres, but the sheer power of the writing. To be sure, Robert Downey, Jr. turns in a fine performance, and it’s good to see him getting attention for his on screen work rather than for his off screen difficulties. There’s also a surprisingly good performance by an actor I’ve rarely admired. I won’t mention his name. See if you can spot him without benefit of the credits. But as good as the acting is, the writing is better. Credit the late Dennis Potter for that. And credit the direction of Keith Gordon, the man who made the vastly under appreciated "Waking The Dead".

The third movie out now about a writer, "In The Cut", is directed by Jane Campion.

It’s possible to view "In The Cut" as a police murder mystery, but that would be selling it short. I was far more interested in Meg Ryan’s portrait of a complex woman, fascinated with words, slang and snippets of poetry. Ryan plays Frannie, a woman working on a book about the patois of the disenfranchised, some of whom are her students. She’s smart in many ways, but as a woman alone in the big city, not particularly attentive to matters of personal safety. It’s not that she’s oblivious, just easily distracted by her passion for language and her yearning for sex and possibly love. The script contains frank and realistic conversations about sex. And the chemistry between Frannie and a detective played by Mark Ruffalo is palpable and utterly convincing. "In The Cut" is raw and brilliant, and one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. But don’t bring the kids.

For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.