The mythologically suicidal Sylvia Plath suffered from depression decades before it was branded an illness, and the most compelling thing about Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the ferociously doomed American poet of the '50s and early '60s, is the way that it digs deep into the spirituality of Plath's malaise. The Sylvia we see has little or no control over the moods that ultimately tear her existence apart. Yet she's hardly some melodramatic head case. Plath, as played by Paltrow, is sexy and willful, boiling over with literary and erotic hunger, possessed of a vision that scarcely fits into her straitlaced era. In 1956, she's an ambitious undergraduate at Cambridge, and from the moment that she meets Ted Hughes (Daniel Craig), the gravel-voiced, square-jawed, morosely charismatic British poet who has had the temerity to pen a negative review of her verse, it's love at first bite. Literally: At a school dance, she's so smitten with passion that she draws blood from his cheek -- a harbinger of the violent war of egos to come.
Poetry, in the rarefied world of postwar British academia, was still a male domain, and Plath and Hughes' bond is rooted in their trashing of petty bourgeois priorities. As they sit around a cramped student flat, high on booze, reciting poems so quickly that it's as if they were trying to will themselves past consciousness, it's clear that these two are amorous and artistic soul mates. He's the born star who can craft a poem in his head during a walk on the beach. She's the dazzling yet conflicted protégée who cleans house and bakes cakes to disguise her writer's block, a role that begins to fray at her nerves even before she discovers that Hughes' public readings have given him the tweedy equivalent of rock-god status.
Struggling for money as well as fame, Plath and Hughes inhabit dowdy, maze-like flats that cinematographer John Toon renders romantically radiant in their 1950s claustrophobia. A generation of feminist scholars have vilified Hughes for his infidelity (as if the guilt for Plath's death rested squarely on his patriarchal shoulders), yet ''Sylvia'' takes a subtler -- and more psychologically suspenseful -- approach. The film acknowledges Plath's troubled history of attempted suicide and implies that Hughes owed it to her not to exploit her fragile nature. Yet the director, Christine Jeffs, remains stubbornly ambiguous about the extent of Hughes' adultery, revealing it through Plath's eyes. The movie suggests that Sylvia, with the white flame of her poetic insight, could see betrayal in the mere flicker of intention. She was self-destructively paranoid, the film says, and she glimpsed the truth. That was her gift and her tragedy.
This is the richest role Paltrow has had since ''Shakespeare in Love,'' and she rises to the challenge. She digs deep into Plath's mercurial nature, giving us a Sylvia who's fiercely independent and alive yet burdened with demons of insecurity that bubble up in a rage. Paltrow and Craig, whose eyes crinkle with wounded insight, forge a powerful connection that reminds you less of the wax-museum dramaturgy of ''Frida'' than the tumultuous love-hate jealousy of ''Sweet Dreams.'' We believe that these two live for words, and for each other, yet it's only when their relationship falls apart that Plath, nearly oracular in her despair, comes into herself as a poet. She's enthralled by life but even more so by death. ''Sylvia,'' a true heartbreaker, reveals the haunted way that she found one in the other.