By Will Barber Taylor
Based on true events, Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) stars as John Malcolm Brinnin, the New York academic who brought Dylan Thomas to America. Actor/co-writer Celyn Jones (Shackleton) plays the volatile celebrity poet – tormented by anonymity, alcohol and the abyss – who scandalised the Manhattan literati of the 1950s and challenged Brinnin’s hero worship of his work. In the face of the Welsh poet’s wilder excesses in the Big Apple, John has no choice but to hijack Dylan and take him to a private retreat to prepare him for America. The days and nights that follow will change his life forever.
Part literary biopic and part love-letter to the American B-movies of the 1940s and ’50s, Andy Goddard’s debut feature, shot in stunning black and white, is both a character driven chamber piece and a cautionary tale about the fly trap of meeting your heroes.
Dylan Thomas is one of Wales’ greatest poets and a man larger than life. He drank with Burton, wrote alongside some of the greatest writers of the 20th century and had an almost imaginary quality about him. Few people could bring Thomas, let alone the world he encapsulated to the big screen. Yet the team behind Set Fire to The Stars have done just that and with exquisite style.
Beginning with Brinnin’s attempts to convince the Harvard establishment to allow Thomas to do a paid lecture tour for them across America’s elite institutions and theatres. From the start, Andy Goddard sets a measured tone – Brinnin’s introduction balances the line perfectly between the absurd and the serious. This is a constant juggling act that Goddard performs and reflects Brinnin and Thomas’ relationship as well as Thomas’ personality. He was chaotic by nature and could swing from ecstatic happiness to deep and violent depression. Goddard also utilises the surrealism of Thomas’ poetry to great effect – when Brinnin and Thomas return to Brinnin’s family cabin in the country it is as if we are stepping into another world. The distortion of the surroundings helps to make the climatic sequence even more believable – Thomas’ revelation about himself in the woods by Brinnin’s house is a culmination of Goddard’s careful shifting of the sands of realism throughout the film.
The cinematography in the film is gorgeous – the black and white film used emphasises both the magical and the disturbing. For instance, Thomas and Brinnin’s walk through the snow-covered streets of New York would put Lowry to shame for its mix of grime and Miracle on 34th Street wonder. Throughout the film the visuals used both illustrate what is happening to Thomas physically but also mentally as he spirals out of control.
Celyn Jones’ central performance as Thomas is breath-taking. He is obnoxious, vulgar and yet sparkling with the same wit and wide eyed childishness which made Thomas such a great poet. He inhabits the role completely and is the central axis from which the rest of the world spins. Elijah Wood gives a similarly masterful performance as Brinnin and reacts perfectly to Thomas’ outlandish outbursts.
Set Fire to the Stars is a wonderful, expressive film that is both a cautionary tale about not meeting your heroes but it is also an uplifting piece of work. It shows that no matter how low we sink we can always rise beyond them and get ourselves back on track. With stellar performances, beautiful cinematography and a universal message Set Fire to the Stars is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.
With thanks to We Are Colony. You can purchase Set Fire to the Stars directly from them here.