A semi-biographical drama featuring Dylan Thomas struggles to find its own narrative poetry.
Set Fire to the Stars
There’s plenty of intrigue to be gleaned from the story of a poet. The romantic notion of a wandering wordsmith of keen mind and melancholic disposition; quick to find a phrase where others can’t, and the first to offer a cheery limerick or profound recitation to the battered soul that bothers to listen. But the mystery of this figure is in their removed quality, emotionally isolated by his or her own will. Tormented inside and perhaps contradictory in the action they take, the celluloid poet is usually found inspiring others as they slowly destroy themselves.
In the case of Set Fire to the Stars, the troubled artist in question is Dylan Thomas (most popularly known for the poem, Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night). The year is 1950, and the Welshman’s been scheduled for a number of poetry readings across the U.S. His first stop is New York City, where he is received by a creative writing professor named John Brinnin (Elijah Wood). A great admirer of Thomas’s prose and an aspiring poet himself, Brinnin flippantly disregards the man’s incorrigible reputation and agrees to be his guide on the tour. Unfortunately, Thomas lives up to the unsavory stories and what was meant to be a professional companionship between a literary celebrity and his liaison soon becomes something closer to that of a man-child and his reluctant babysitter. After a rowdy night on the town and an ugly bottoming out at the hotel, Brinnin decides to take the drunken poet out of the city, to a family owned cabin in the woods of Connecticut. There, the two men alternate between bonding and butting heads as Thomas prepares for an upcoming engagement at Yale University.
While the events are from the perspective of Elijah Wood’s character, it is ultimately Celyn Jones that commands the spotlight as Dylan Thomas. The poet is a hurricane of a man, strong and aggressive, always looking for either a drink or a hefty meal. He’s introduced to us at a party, playing the part of a wild gorilla, swilling alcohol and drunkenly crashing through another man’s apartment as he carries a shrieking woman over his shoulder. The boorish behavior extends to all settings and no matter who the audience is, Thomas seems unable to stop himself from indulging his impulsive spirit. He cares not what others think of him and frequently frustrates his comrade, but through it all, he retains a certain eloquence, his brilliant mind making itself known at the most unlikely times. Jones’s performance is magnetic and aside from the occasional overly-sentimental moment, his portrayal of the larger than life poet is well-balanced and often nuanced.
As Thomas’s cautious caretaker, Elijah Wood is not nearly as compelling. Wide-eyed and slightly awkward, Wood fits the role, but his affectation is flat in almost every scene. He doesn’t quite sell his embodiment of John Brinnin, and with a character that is so thinly written in the first place, it’s hard to get a real sense of him beyond his politely hesitant tendencies. The film hints at something more interesting in a scene in which Brinnin tells a heartbreaking impromptu story at a dinner party, but outside of this anomaly, the character remains underwhelming—little more than a window for the audience to view Thomas through.
The brief emotional odyssey these two characters traverse is unconventional, but not always engagingly so. Plainly stated, the structure and pacing of their story is off-putting at first. The film starts quickly, leaping right into Thomas’s arrival and presenting the men as being more familiar with each other than would be expected of two people who’ve just met. There’s very little time devoted to the relationship being built up, and twenty minutes in the film and its characters feel well into their falling action. It’s a strange way to open a film—saved only by the natural story progression—and the remainder of the movie plays like an extended third act. The eventual slow down in pace is appreciated, as a series of introspective conversations and encounters with off-kilter personalities are allowed to take place and give the film some thematic focus. Though, this lengthened ending weighs the film down and makes it difficult for these series of moments to add up to anything truly memorable. Set Fire to the Stars goes out on a relatively high note, but the false climax at Yale and a couple of non-endings hamper it.
Beyond the confusion of the story structure lies a greater problem in the film’s dialogue. For a semi-biographical film dealing with a poet, one would expect there to be some analysis of the writer’s work in relation to his or her life. A study of the poet’s negotiation of real life issues through language. But, this is not exactly what Set Fire to the Stars does. The dialogue is unnaturally dense in an attempt to imitate poetic written prose, but only succeeds in undercutting emotional tone. Thomas’s own poetry is employed from time to time and its use resembles a dazzling crutch more than an enlightening tool. Pretty, but slight when it comes to informing the story.
Along with its flawed flow and stunted dialogue, the film teases with false emotional plot devices as well. Distractions that do the characters and story no real service and serve up more disappointment upon their eventual reveals.
Writer-Director Andy Goddard (best known for his work in TV shows like Downton Abbey and Torchwood) doesn’t lack in visual ability. The black and white cinematography is good-looking and a quietly somber mood is nicely evoked in a number of expressive visual flourishes. The only crime Set Fire to the Stars commits is the quaint crime of being unremarkable. Priding itself on lofty quotes, the film struggles to fully involve the audience on an emotional level begging the question, who is the film for? Lovers of jazz-inflected narratives set in early ’50s America may enjoy it and fans of Dylan Thomas will surely get more out of it than those unfamiliar with the man, but for everyone else, there’s not much to write home about.