Director: Andy Goddard
Writing Credits: Andy Goddard, Celyn Jones
Cast: Celyn Jones, Elijah Wood, Kelly Reilly + Richard Brake, Kevin Eldon, Shirley Henderson, Steven Mackintosh, Maimie McCoy
‘Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’
Words (below) by Jonathan Glen – follow him @joffglen
Dylan Thomas was an effervescent character. A genius and a belligerent drunk, he was a man who built the heights people expected of him before being more than happy to crush them.
And while Andy Goddard’s Set Fire to the Stars is an admirable attempt to chronicle Thomas’s last few years, the film fails to capture much of the fervour and abandon with which the poet lived. The film doesn’t quite set fire to the stars, more sheds a little bit of light on them.
Adapted from John Malcolm Brinnin’s 1955 book Dylan Thomas in America, a restrained account of the poet’s last four years on tours of the US, Goddard’s move to shoot the film in black and white is a nice touch. It transports us to the time in which the narrative is set and gives a visual edge to parts of the film; snowy scenes of New York and frantic drives down highways are given far more melancholy and energy from the aesthetic. Combined with Gruff Rhys’ excellent score, Set Fire to the Stars feels of its time – the music and look bringing immediacy to the opening proceedings.
Thomas’s drunken antics are also brought to the fore at once, countering the slick beginning. Often considered one of Britain’s great poets, Dylan Thomas surprisingly struggled with both his finance and success; whether it be letting his family slip towards the breadline, tearing up pubs and events in both the UK and US, or becoming one of the most popular and accessible poets Britain has ever seen.
In part a collaborative project, Set Fire to the Stars was co-written by director Andy Goddard and Celyn Jones – the Anglesey born actor who plays Dylan Thomas, and perhaps too much of the Welshman’s comic buffoonery is utilised in scenes of drunkenness. Jones’s portrayal of Thomas’s alcoholic stupor appears childlike, occasionally funny, but leaves questions about depth of character still up in the air.
Elijah Wood stars as John Brinnin, the poetry professor who brings Dylan Thomas to the US for a series of readings and lectures; confident that the stories emanating across the Atlantic are exaggerated, Brinnin is sure he can make a success of the tours – staking his entire career on it.
Wood is an easy actor to dislike, his emotional range appears limited to a series of worried looks and frowns – and while perhaps suited to Brinnin’s detached administration, it blunts the film’s emotional power in key scenes (whilst this is not entirely the fault of ol’ Elijah).
A fault that cannot be laid, however, at Jones’s door – the sometimes staid or clownish antics he depicts are more down to the writing, the lead principle taking to every scene with a fantastic vitality. Jones proves more than capable in the critical moments of the film, although there are perhaps not enough where the screenplay allows him that range.
And this is the crux of the film. However competently written and directed, Set Fire to the Stars , with respect to the subject matter, remains all too plain – even for all the ‘moments’ the film pushes the edges. Only one fantastic scene, wherein Dylan Thomas sits on a felled tree stump reading a letter from his wife Caitlin (a superb Kelly Reilly) before she appears in a dream to speak the words to him, feels truly worthy of the explosive personality depicted.
A film about Dylan Thomas desperately wants to be rougher, grittier and more moving – centred on a character that inspires both love and hate. Thomas was a supreme talent, but as much a waste of self destruction brought on by cavalier recklessness and systematic alcoholism.
Set Fire to the Stars should be something altogether more inspirational and damning; an epitaph certainly more deserving.
Set Fire to the Stars is still pending UK release. Advance screenings were shown at the International Edinburgh Film Festival 2014.
For more on Set Fire to the Stars, visit http://setfiretothestars.com/