By James Hancock June 8th, 2015
In the tradition of movies about self-destructive artists run amuck such as Milos Forman’s ‘Amadeus’ (1984) and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Bird’ (1988), we now have the definitive movie on Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, ‘Set Fire to the Stars’. Like most ignorant Americans my knowledge of Dylan Thomas is limited to recitations of his work in movies such as the use of ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ by Michael Caine in ‘Interstellar’ (2014) or perhaps more notoriously by Rodney Dangerfield during his final exams in ‘Back to School’ (1986). I am not a connoisseur of poetry but what little exposure I had to his work as an English major in college definitely had an impact on me, in particular the stories of his hell raising antics and near-suicidal love of alcohol. These antics are at the heart of this new film directed by Andy Goddard and co-written by Goddard and Celyn Jones, who also stars in the film as Dylan Thomas. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the film follows the volatile Dylan Thomas on his first American tour in 1950 where he manages both to awe and shock nearly everyone he encounters in equal measure. Elijah Wood plays the poet/critic John Brinnin who is instrumental in bringing Dylan Thomas to the United States for this tour of college campuses and it is his job to chaperone Thomas throughout his engagements. As a frustrated academic without a distinctive voice, Brinnin is starstruck by the talent of Dylan Thomas but soon finds himself in a love/hate relationship as supervising the brilliant overgrown man child takes its toll on Brinnin’s professional life and his sanity. On the whole, the film is a fascinating moviegoing experience, Celyn Jones clearly has great things in store for him, but I have some reservations that prevent me from embracing the film wholeheartedly and I fear these reservations will prevent the film from finding an audience beyond the art house cinemas where the movie will likely thrive.
My chief grievance is that if I go see a movie about Dylan Thomas, I expect some poetry. In the aforementioned ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Bird’, the music of those troubled artists was featured prominently. Granted it is easier to incorporate music into a movie’s soundtrack than it is a dramatic reading in a film such as ‘Set Fire to the Stars’, however, in the few scenes where we see Dylan Thomas recite his work, the filmmaker more often than not chooses to have the words fade out amidst swelling music, music that is clearly intended to convey the emotions felt by those in attendance of the reading but unfortunately completely obscures the meaning of the words. Celyn Jones offers a genuinely magnetic performance as Dylan Thomas and his readings in the film are particularly good, making me all the more frustrated at how little poetry I actually got to hear in the movie.
My main problem with the film, and it wounds me to say this, is with the character played by Elijah Wood. I’m a massive fan of Elijah Wood but he just gets blasted off the screen by Celyn Jones, mostly because of how his character was written. Too often we’re forced to endure uninteresting scenes where John Brinnin tries to do damage control with the prudish academics responsible for financing and orchestrating the Dylan Thomas tour. While Dylan Thomas may using shocking language and seems hellbent upon wooing every woman he encounters, his behavior is not really that offensive even by the standards of the 1950s. I quickly lost interest in scenes involving bureaucratic weasels giving Elijah Wood a hard time about Dylan’s actions. But the main problem with John Brinnin as written is his inconsistent characterization as he oscillates between being a swaggering cocksure Manhattan hipster (or the 50s equivalent) and the emotionally needy, semi-desperate individual he becomes when Dylan Thomas refuses to spoon feed him the pearls of creative wisdom Brinnin so eagerly desires. The eventual confrontation and rift is clearly meant to be the dramatic climax of the film but I just wasn’t buying it. I was far more intrigued by the amazing scenes beforehand where Brinnin and Thomas invite an eccentric couple to their cabin for a night of drinking and ghost stories. It is the kind of exclusive romantic evening every fan of literature and poetry would give their right arm to attend. If I have sounded overly critical of the film, rest assured that the movie is a thoroughly enjoyable film about the life of a genuine literary celebrity, one who unfortunately only lived a few years past the experiences captured in this film. In many scenes, the movie very nearly achieves greatness and I was riveted from start to finish. Prior to seeing the movie, I was completely unaware of the colossal talent of Celyn Jones and I’ll eagerly look forward to any projects he and Andy Goddard decide to tackle in the years to come.
* * *
DIRECTED BY: Andy Goddard
WRITTEN BY: Andy Goddard and Celyn Jones
STARRING: Elijah Wood, Celyn Jones, Kelly Reilly, Steven Mackintosh,
Shirley Henderson and Kevin Eldon.
OPENS FRIDAY, JUNE 12, 2015 in New York at The Village East with a national and Los Angeles release to follow on June 19 in major cities.
SET FIRE TO THE STARS will be released nationwide on July 21 on DVD, VOD, Digital platforms and Itunes.
Country of Origin: UK / Genre: DRAMA
Running Time: 93 minutes / Not Rated/
English Language/ Black & White
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