Inspired by a true story... Set in 1950s New York and starring Elijah Wood as John Malcolm Brinnin, the aspiring young American poet who finds his ordered world shaken when he embarks on a week-long retreat to save his hell raising hero, Dylan Thomas, played by Celyn Jones. Directed by BAFTA-nominated director, Andy Goddard this visually stunning film, shot entirely in black and white, is a cautionary tale about meeting your heroes, the dirty business of celebrity and about what may have happened in an East Coast boathouse when an earnest ingenue shared cabin space with his idol, the greatest living poet of the twentieth century.
Arty Portrait of Dylan Thomas the Drunk in early 50s America
- Set Fire to the Stars review by PV
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You rated this film: 3
This film is a passable attempt to paint a portrait of drunken doomed Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in his sad final years. It is perhaps a study of alcoholism more than anything else though, as well as the sheer stark pomposity of the academic world when confronted by the creative one,
There was a BBC drama last year (2014 - the centenary of Dylan's birth) that portrayed the poet's final trip to New York (where he died aged 39 in 1953 after drinking too much whisky and then getting injected with painkillers by doctors...) - and to be fair, that was the better drama. 'Dylan in New York'?
This film has more pretensions and aims for the arty audience. It is clearly low-budget, with bars and hotels in Swansea standing in for New York - but attempts to be surrealism and impressionistic at times rather than aiming for documentary realism.
The poetry gets a good airing - and the early work of Thomas always sounds great - but at the end of this perhaps flimsy and undeveloped film, I felt that despite sound great scenes (for example a great ghost story session), it lacked the depth of the BBC 2014 drama.
It may also be called a tad self-indulgent, maybe a result of the state funding for its budget (via Film Wales) or the fact that the actor who plays Thomas and the director also so-wrote the screenplay. I suspect a good editor and an outside voice to suggest screenplay changes would have been a big help.
Anyway, a modest addition to the portrayals of Dylan Thomas, a man whose early life was genius and who's later years a study in the drink taking the man.
Not as good or groundbreaking as it thinks it is.
Just average, and thankfully not too long. 3 stars
The Dylan Thomas movie Set Fire to the Stars is given an arthouse treatment matching the emotion in the poetry of the famed poet. Told through the memoirs of aspiring poet John Brinnin, it has some big shoes to fill in painting a portrait for the most famed poet of the 20th century. His trip to America in 1950 was a time filled with booze, perversion and depression. Thanks to the direction of Andy Goddard, Dylan’s influence on John is treated with multiple tones that are more or less on target for a conflicted writer.
The extra boost to this interpretation are the performances. Celyn Jones as Dylan manages to encapsulate the varying emotions of a cracked man capable of great passion and low humor. He stumbles around in a drunken stupor, desperately trying to grab any women in proximity. But when positioned in front of a podium, his party nature melts away to make way for his beautiful words. With what little Celyn Jones is given to work with on this snapshot of Dylan’s life, he turns in an exceptional performance capable of great inspiration and great depression. Celyn is a genuine surprise given his limited range as a TV actor, but it’s clear he knew the role in that he co-wrote the screenplay.
Playing off him perfectly as the starry eyed tagalong is Elijah Wood as poet John M. Brinnin. He desperately attempts to maintain face with all of Dylan’s issues and frustrations. Wood has always been a lock as the meek protagonist with bits of anxiety. It’s predictable casting, but you can’t argue that he knows how to nail the role. If he can pull off a stoner who has to learn from his dog on the show Wilfred, than he can easily pull off an aspiring poet studying from a master of the medium. And with a week in the country to dry him out, he’ll have plenty of time to dig deep inside Dylan’s mind.
While the timeframe doesn’t exactly divulge deep into the characters of John and Dylan, it at least offers up equal time to both. The two connect over food and cigarettes with Dylan never turning down the chance to woo a good-looking lady. While Dylan appears to be the life of the party with his endless cravings for people and chocolate, his dark side looms ever present with a letter he refuses to open. It’s a weakness that John discovers and begins to question the true worth of his hero. But, of course, John has his own hangups that Dylan doesn’t hesitate to prod as well. They attempt to bond while alone and while entertaining guests with stories by night - complete with plenty of booze and cigarettes of course.
Shot by Andy Goddard on a very low budget, the film is genuine arthouse filmmaking. Seen in contrasting black and white, Goddard evokes an amazing amount of style while filming mostly at a cabin in the woods. The setting is also boosted by a fantastic score from Gruff Rhys who infuses the movie with a classical and jazzy mix. The only big issue is that there seems to be a rollercoaster of tone for the manner in which both Dylan and John are presented. Sometimes the movie is playing to the dynamics of the two poets the way they exchange words. Other times it’s a louse of dramedy about a man who can’t keep his act together. And at other times it’s a straight up art piece the way Dylan is quoted in some strange visions.
While the movie doesn’t capitalize on Dylan Thomas’ death during his 1950’s tour, it does showcase some great acting and capable direction. It never reaches the height of being a biopic that encapsulates Dylan’s twilight years, but it does offer up some real filmmaking for dabbling in the characters of John and Dylan. It’s just a good looking movie with solid performances that more than makes up for not being as historical as it could have been. Andy Goddard manages to find some real moments of character that are so infatuating that it's forgivable how the story just ends on a quiet note.
Dylan Thomas Poems: 'And Death Shall Have No Dominion', 'If I Were Tickled by the Rub of Love', and 'In My Craft or Sullen Art' read by Celyn Jones, 'Love In The Asylum' read by the cast Gruff In Metropolis