A monochrome portrait of poet Dylan Thomas running amuck stateside, Andy Goddard’s Set Fire To The Stars runs high on character but low on emotion.
Do Not Go Gentle by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Taking its title from Dylan Thomas’ poem Love In The Asylum, Andy Goddard’s Set Fire To The Stars is centred round the true story of the Welsh poet’s tour of the United States in 1950, accompanied (or should that be shepherded) by Harvard graduate, poet and critic John Malcolm Brinnin. A talented poet on the brink of global success, Thomas was already infamous for his wild, drink-fuelled escapades – a “quick to anger, horrible little imp” to upset both buttoned-up aspiring academic Brinnin’s life and career. It’s a love affair, a battle, and a moment in time that would make (or break) both men.
It’s New York, 1950 and John Brinnin (Elijah Wood) is appealing to his faculty panel to bring Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) across the Atlantic to embark on a reading tour across the States, establishing the poet’s popularity and simultaneously launching Brinnin’s own career. It’s a devilishly symbiotic alliance, but when Thomas arrives, he sets Manhattan alight – rampaging through an apartment party with a female guest spreadeagled over his shoulder and drinking Manhattan’s bars dry. Chucked out of his hotel room, Brinning takes the poet to his parents’ cabin in Connecticut, attempting to keep the Welsh live wire in check.
Beautifully filmed in atmospheric black and white, Andy Goddard’s Set Fire To The Stars begins in a jazz-infused montage of furious energy – as Brinnin recites the potential venues of Thomas’ upcoming tour. It’s co-written by actor Celyn Jones, and it’s an impassioned script – not only capturing the wild fervour of the poet, but also Dylan’s passion for poetry. Jones also gives a fantastic performance as the capricious bard, lurching vertiginously between petulant sweet-munching boy and diabolical mischief-maker, scandalising the Yale deanery with a dirty limerick that explodes in their hallowed halls like a mushroom cloud.
Despite Thomas’s anxious refusals to read a letter from his wife Caitlin (a sadly under-used Kelly Reilly), this isn’t his story -he’s simply the dancing bear that turns Brinnin from a poet into a sideshow huckster. It’s Brinnin’s – forging his own creative endeavour under the anvil of Dylan’s presence. Can he learn from the great master how to see the world, how to feel? Can he lighten up, cede control and enjoy the ride? And Elijah Wood is great as the twitchy scholar, finding a vast range of emotions in an everyman character. From his confident sunnies-wearing opening to the dark moodiness of his Detroit mouse “ghost story”, it’s a sometimes slicked, sometimes tousled portrait of a man on the way to losing himself.
Thomas’ advice to Brinnin on writing poetry is not to open a book, but a window. In other words – live, don’t read about living. But for a film about a poet, who declares it his mission to write so that his readers might feel something first, before clarity or understanding, Set Fire To The Stars is fatally restrained. It’s beautiful to look at, well performed and well scripted (even if budget constraints nag at the edges of its New York exteriors), but – apart from one startling scene where Thomas reads Caitlin’s letter and sees her in a dizzying hallucination – lacks passion. Rather like John Malcolm Brinnin, who documented his time with the Welsh poet in a biography, Goddard’s film falls both under Dylan Thomas’s spell and shadow – one larger-than-life man eclipsing its entire being.
Set Fire To The Stars is released on 7th November 2014 in the UK