Near the end of a recent critics' screening of Sylvia, the film seemed to leap out of the projector, leaving the screen white and empty.
Had the movie about doomed poet Sylvia Plath suddenly committed suicide?
No, that couldn't be: This rhythmless, unrevealing biopic had done that at least an hour earlier.
An attempted examination of Plath and her relationship with British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, the film is a prestige picture that doesn't have a lot going for it beyond its serious intentions.
As played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, Sylvia and Ted never come to life. The crucial details of their troubled romance are murky, and the mood is so consistently dark that there's no room left for enlightenment.
Last year's The Hours, which, among other things, explored the life of Virginia Woolf, was the exception to the rule that films about writers and artists -- especially suicidal ones -- tend to be mind-numbing.
Sylvia, a more typical example of the form, could have been called Suicide Is Tedious.
British screenwriter John Brownlow begins the story in the England of 1956. Sylvia, an American on a Fulbright Scholarship, attends a literary shindig where she meets and immediately falls for the dashing Ted.
Soon, they have joined in a marriage that will eventually produce two children. But there is trouble in paradise.
Because Ted has the jump on Sylvia, in terms of critical acceptance, she feels ignored and neglected.
Practically every time he leaves the house or even speaks to another woman, she becomes jealous. One of the film's many problems is that you can't tell to what extent these suspicions are justified.
In the title role, Paltrow is all over the place. Whether she's raging against Ted or just staring sadly ahead, she offers little insight into her character's agony.
Why do actors -- even gifted ones -- think they can do it all themselves? Don't they realize they need well-crafted scenes and dialogue that will help them to express what they're feeling inside?
Close-ups and long, lingering moments won't get the job done. And although we have to assume that Paltrow has been deliberately de-glamorized for this most solemn production, does she really have to look like hara-kiri warmed over?
Her hair just hangs there, her flesh seems unnaturally moist and her voice is even more nasal than it is in TV interviews.
You want to hand her a tissue, if not for that nose then for her unflattering makeup.
As Ted, Craig (Paul Newman's son in Road to Perdition) is at least attractive: He has the sunken cheeks, hooded eyes and deep, smoky voice of the brooding artist.
But Ted is even more opaque than Sylvia.
In his famous poem, "November," Ted Hughes speaks of a "hanging silence," and that silence seems to hang around the man we see on the screen.
New Zealand's Christine Jeffs, the film's director, has no sense of how to shape the material.
To take one obvious example, early on there's an encounter between Ted and Sylvia's mother, who is played by Paltrow's real mom, Blythe Danner.
"Be good to her. Always," Sylvia's mother tells Ted, who promises never to hurt Sylvia.
But if, after that, and in view of how the marriage collapses, you expect another talk between mom and Ted, don't hold your breath.
Sylvia Plath was certainly a complex woman, and getting to the bottom of her personality is no easy task. But it's hard to cut the filmmakers any slack when they've taken on the assignment themselves and botched it so badly.
"You know what my trouble is?" Sylvia asks Ted one uncharacteristically sunny day, thinking about her work as a writer. "I don't have a subject."
Ted insists that her subject is herself.
This movie has a subject too. In fact, it has a couple of them.
What Sylvia really needs is a focus.
Jay Boyar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5492.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times