Highs and lows

Film - Mark Kermode is unmoved by the lifeless <em>Sylvia</em>, but finds Mike Figgis's chiller a ho

Quite apart from the tragic loss of a young life cut down in its prime, there are two genuinely terrible things about Sylvia Plath's suicide in 1963. First, every event in her life, however inconsequential, would subsequently be read as a prologue to martyrdom, a step on the road to inevitable self-destruction. Second, the fact that Ariel, her most celebrated volume of poetry, achieved only posthumous publication convinced a generation of angst-ridden A-level English students that greatness can only be achieved from beyond the grave. In a world in which adolescents adorn their walls with posters of Kurt Cobain and watery Ophelias, Plath has become an icon of tragic cool, embraced less for the power of her poetry than for the pseudo-mythical nature of her passing. Today, even though her recently published diaries are packed with delightfully mundane detail about dinner dances and domestic rituals, commentators still find themselves duty-bound to interpret Plath's entire short life as a prelude to her death.

No surprise, then, that Sylvia should find little that is vibrant or life-affirming in Plath's relationship with the future Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, whose boldly brutal literary style would be so beautifully caricatured in the pages of Private Eye. Instead, we are invited to lay back and wallow as Plath (clinically embodied by Gwyneth Paltrow) lurches from one depressing episode to another, eking out an increasingly fraught existence against a backdrop of power-cuts, adultery and spousal absence. Holed up in London and Devon, Sylvia is seen biting her nails, looking lost, and regularly destroying her husband's written ramblings while he cavorts with yet another doll-faced paramour. By the time she finally gasses herself, one wonders whether the poor woman ever got any pleasure at all from what others may find an oddly rewarding life - a life of material privilege, academic advantage, genetic fecundity (she produces two bonny children), country cottages and flatlets in Primrose Hill.

That this literary biopic should prove such an unedifying affair perhaps says more about the shortcomings of the genre than about the true terrors of Plath's life. Just as the biographical sections of The Hours did a disservice to Virginia Woolf, turning her into little more than a moaning minnie, so Sylvia allows another feted actress to suffer her socks off (sans stick-on nose, thankfully) without ever enabling us to empathise with her pain. Part of the blame must lie with the screenwriter, John Brownlow, although it's hard to imagine how anything other than poetry recitals could successfully turn Plath's experiences into accessible art.

The director, Christine Jeffs, produced an extraordinary calling card with Rain, an edgy first feature about the dark underbelly of family life that suffered only from an uncomfortable fetishisation of bereavement in its final reel. Here, that tendency toward mawkishess takes centre stage, presenting us with what in effect becomes a two-hour death scene - despite the irrepressible sparkiness of Daniel Craig's portrayal of Ted Hughes, who dominates the proceedings with his brooding, lurking menace; and an avuncular cameo by Michael Gambon, who adds a much-needed note of levity.

In contrast to such academic suffering, Mike Figgis's Cold Creek Manor is an absolute hoot, the work of a high-brow director slumming it in the exploitation mainstream and clearly enjoying the hell out of himself in the process. The story, about a city family taking over a remote country mansion, pilfers a bewildering array of cinematic sources: from 1970s classics like Straw Dogs, through the property horrors of The Shining and Pacific Heights, to (bizarrely) the recent Japanese chills of Ring. There's little here that you haven't seen before, but ringmaster Figgis conducts the proceedings with such energetic gusto that it's impossible not to sit there grinning like a loon as the house's tortured history returns to haunt the new tenants, resulting in snake attacks, sexual tensions and something unspeakable in the swimming pool.

Along with a couple of good, honest jumps, there's a nicely nasty sequence involving a video camera (Figgis's trademark), a deep, dark well, and a rotten family secret that produces efficiently skin-crawling thrills. The performances, too, are uniformly top notch, with Figgis giving Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone something to shout about, while allowing supporting players Stephen Dorff and Juliette Lewis to do what they're best at - chew the scenery with aplomb. Although purists will doubtless complain about the lack of artistic innovation, hearing Figgis go dang-a-dang-a-dang on the frankly satirical score (he wrote the music, too) simply proves that he's in on the joke. If only most mainstream trash was half as much fun as this.

Sylvia (15) and Cold Creek Manor (15) now on general release