By Alex MacLellan

The goal for most artists from Britain these days seems to be if they can break America. Andrew Goddard’s version of Dylan Thomas seems to take that challenge literally.

Set Fire to the Stars is a semi-biographical film about Welsh poet Thomas’ first trip to America. Those who have read the book by John Brinnin will be familiar with the tone and relationship between the two characters. Yet on screen, in appropriately artistic black and white, Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones bring you along on a very intimate journey.

The film kicks off with a nervous Brinnin (Wood) pitching the idea of bringing Thomas (Jones) to America for the first time. With a fair amount of concern over Thomas’ drinking habits and lewd nature, the smell of which has managed to cross the Atlantic, his superiors agree.

Brinnin very quickly learns how difficult it is to supervise his literary hero. The depths of Thomas’ vices are completely foreign to the pristine Brinnin. After Thomas is unceremoniously thrown from his hotel in New York, Brinnin takes him to his childhood summerhouse in rural Connecticut where the real movie takes place.

It is in this intimate setting, surrounded by the quiet of nature, the hurricane that it Thomas is unleashed. As the movie progresses we see Brinnin reduced to a pitiable state by his inability to say no to his idol. I wanted to give him a leaflet about being in an abusive relationship; such was Wood’s performance. He doesn’t love you John, and no matter how many times you say yes, he never will.

Thomas, of course, is the polar opposite to Brinnin. We see a man with immense talent and yet crippled with demons beyond the drink. He first appears as a playful, yet lecherous, drunk; much like someone who tries to find his next girlfriend on the night bus home. However, in a matter of moments, he transforms into a man wracked with self-pity and anger.

Eventually we come to understand him not as an alcoholic, but as a man addicted to feeling and emotion. He is willing to chase it with such disregard to everything, and everyone else, that in a way I found myself jealous I don’t have the courage to do the same. Yet underneath it all, he is a coward. Afraid of his own failings and responsibilities he will do anything; even play a game of chess, rather than confront them.

So Brinnin drags Thomas, literally, through the movie in a haze of drink and cigarette smoke. Time and again he shows a resilience to not give up on his hero, even when he has given up on himself. Together they produce many touching moments, when the poetry inside Thomas breaks through the smog of his existence and illuminates Brinnin. But as quickly as this redemption comes, it goes. In the end we see the cast recite Love In the Asylum as the two companions lie in the muck, contemplating their futures.

Goddard has pieced together a fine film for his cinematic debut. It seems to change pace very frequently, which may unsettle some, but accurately portrays the chaotic nature of poetry and hedonism that is Dylan Thomas. It is full of atmosphere and has a soundtrack that compliments every artistic pause.

It is a credit to Wood that even though he plays the most unassuming part in the movie, he demands the viewer’s attention. Jones meanwhile gives a committed performance as Thomas, culminating in a hallucinogenic showdown with his wife as she reproaches him for all his many, many, failures.

Like the great poet this film has its flaws. My biggest worry about watching this film was feeling like an outsider. I have never been the biggest fan of poetry, and I wasn’t familiar with Dylan Thomas’ story, but within a few minutes I was drawn in.

Very quickly this quite remarkable poet, and the even more remarkable man who puts up with him capture your attention and refuse to let you go until the credits roll.

Movie Review: Set Fire To The Stars
An intimate journey into the life of a legend
3.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (3 Votes)

About The Author