Poet Dylan Thomas lived a brief and not terribly prolific life. His dexterity with words however made him one of the 20th century’s most beloved writers. He struggled financially and against a host of demons including his fiery yet addictive wife, and demonic self-loathing he tried to bury at the bottom of a bottle. When we examine the lives of artists – or any historical figure of note – we are all too often faced with the difficult paradox of being in love with their works, but not with them. SET FIRE TO THE STARS illustrates that cognitive dissonance. I believe that if you are well versed (no pun intended) in Thomas’ works, or poetry in general, you may feel greater affection for the film than those of us who lack an educated appreciation. As someone who considers herself to be relatively well read, but woefully ignorant about poetry, the film was challenging: I found myself irritated and weary of Thomas’ non-stop antics, precisely how his friends and handler must have felt, and yet as his words pour forth the texture and beauty of his prose is staggering.
Set in 1950, three years before his death, SET FIRE TO THE STARS chronicles Thomas’ first trip to New York and a series of readings set up for him by John M. Brinnin (Elijah Wood) who was, at that time, Director of the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association Poetry Center in New York City now popularly known as the 92nd Street Y. Brinnin is not only a fan but a published poet himself and hopes desperately to forge a friendship with Thomas. It should be noted that the film was produced by Wood and co-written by Celyn Jones who plays Thomas and bears a good resemblance to the poet. Director Andy Goddard wrote the screenplay with Jones and I must admit that such an entwined grouping usually arouses my suspicions and sadly, great apprehension. In this case it seems to have worked for the most part.
The film is erratic; long stretches that feel indulgent, predictable and somewhat dry, are punctuated by scenes of great dialogue and inviting spookiness. We are never able to quite get a grip on just when Thomas could next explode like a bomb spewing forth verbal shrapnel in the form of debauched limericks or hateful insults, or demolish a party with the flailing clumsiness of a 300 lb. overtired toddler. Jones captures the excruciating neediness of Thomas perfectly, and possesses the shame, the crippling need for constant stimulation and the petulant childlike self-pity of Thomas all bathed in a drunken haze. Just when you dare to believe that he will rise to the occasion he assuredly self-destructs. Wood’s Brinnin watches in horror with his bottomless doe-eyed gaze and desperately clings to reason and sheer force of will which are no match for the tornado that is Thomas. No matter how gifted and talented they may be, how pained and fragile, or how profoundly we care for them, babysitting an addict bears no redemption, no romance and no glory.
Shirley Henderson is a brilliant addition to the cast and crafts one of the best scenes in the film, her high-pitched youthful voice flows in perfect contrast to the subject matter of her story. Steven Mackintosh who plays Brinnin’s friend and colleague Jack, wound as tight as a piano wire, tries valiantly to rally behind Brinnin’s project but after a venomous assault against the old guard at Jack’s alma mater Yale (in a fantastic scene mind you), he too abandons ship. The film is shot in black and white which cleverly removes the glitz of period cloths and cars, graphically rendering all things equal, and forces us to focus on the interpersonal energy and dialogue. This is the first feature length film for Andy Goddard who has some impressive television credits. Still, TV is a different animal and he has some work to do to achieve pacing that engages his viewers without losing them for stretches at a time. It is a film first and foremost for Dylan Thomas fans, those who can look through the pain and tirades and see only the beauty. If it can help to bring the glory of his verse to those uninitiated, then all the better.(3 / 5)
Director: Andy Goddard
Cast: Elijah Wood, Celyn Jones, Steven Mackintosh, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon
Running Time: 97 minutes
SET FIRE TO THE STARS Movie Review