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SET FIRE TO THE STARS (director/writer: Andy Goddard; screenwriter: Celyn Jones; cinematographer: Chris Seager; editor: Mike Jones; music: Gruff Rhys; cast: Elijah Wood (John Malcolm Brinnin), Kelly Reilly (Caitlin Thomas, the wife of Dylan Thomas), Celyn Jones (Dylan Thomas), Steven Mackintosh (Jack), Shirley Henderson (Shirley), Kevin Eldon (Stanley), Maimie McCoy (Rosie), Richard Brake (Mr. Unlucky), Weston Gavin (Yale Provost); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Andy Evans/A.J. Riach; Strand Releasing; 2014-UK)
“Its appeal probably won’t reach outside of an art-house audience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The debut feature film directing venture of noted Brit TV director Andy Goddard (five episodes of Downton Abbey). It’s based on his chronicling the week in the life of the great but roisterous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones), during his 40-date tour of the U.S. in the 1950s. Goddard writes the screenplay with the film’s star, Celyn Jones, that’s somewhat fictionalized from the book John Malcolm Brinnin wrote after the controversial visit.

The visually stunning pic is shot in a glorious black and white monochrome. It results in an elegant tribute to the hell-raising poet and to the power of his poetry. But the film never has much depth, is not a moving experience and does not even attempt to capture the meaning of Thomas’ poetry. It instead plays it safe by avoiding any controversial issues. It seems only to want you to get a feeling of what the wild poet was all about. The firebrand poet is seen as a 35-year-old, leading a reckless life of womanizing and boozing, who three years later would be dead in 1953.

The title is derived from the last line of Thomas’ poem Love in the Asylum.

It’s a given how difficult it is to make a film about poetry. There are only a few films about poetry that turn out great. This is only a decent one. The best is Cocteau‘s surreal film The Blood of a Poet (1930).

Goddard’s approach is to make it a stylized old fashioned biopic, one that offers a dynamic study of the opposites trying to relate to each other despite wide differences. It does an adequate job of setting the right poetical tone, keeping things intimate, allowing the flawed poet to be perceived as an endearing roguish figure and of competently executing the treatment of the film. It is acceptable even if its appeal probably won’t reach outside of an art-house audience.

The stuffy but sensitive young American poet John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood), a Harvard professor and great admirer of the poet, has organized Dylan Thomas’ first US tour and has agreed to look after him. This turns out to be more of a burden than Brinnin could have imagined, as Dylan is a drunken reprobate in poor health and resists all attempts to act with constraint. Attempting to keep Thomas out of trouble and away from NYC’s hedonistic temptations, is more than Brinnin bargained for. The last straw for Brinnin is when they are given the boot from a swanky city hotel. Brinnin then alters the schedule and takes the Welshman to his family’s rustic cottage in Connecticut for solitude.

The best scene in Connecticut has the always dependable Shirley Henderson, playing Brinnin’s neighbor, visit and tell a memorable macabre ghost story while a flashlight shines on her face.

Another Connecticut scene I thought effective, was where Thomas gives a private reading to the Yale hierarchy and insults them openly as snobs. The subversive politically incorrect madman poet shows he’s not afraid to call out the elites as posers.

In the powerful last scene, we learn the experience of hosting the poet was so troubling for Brinnin, that he left poetry and academia soon after the visit. The self-effacing Brinnin is sadly quoted as saying “I’m as well known as I deserve to be.

Though the film is overall too flat to be rewarding, it’s saved from being disposable by the outstanding performances of its two stars. Celyn Jones gives a robust performance, as he wonderfully channels Wales’ most famous unconventional poet in his uncensored lust for life and ability to exhibit both pain and humor without ever forgetting to always be true to himself as an artist. While Elijah Wood delivers a pitch perfect performance as the Welsh poet’s foil. He’s an inferior poet, but one sincerely revealing both his shame and pain without asking the viewer to accept him blindly for his failings. I don’t think there are two other performers who could have given more honest performances playing out this engaging odd couple bromance.

The soundtrack by Super Furry Animals alum frontman Gruff Rhys is catchy. Though his violin music is puzzling when playing over Thomas’ poetry recitals, it nevertheless is mind-blowing. I only wished the film was mind-blowing instead of just being tasteful.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”