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SET FIRE TO THE STARS – Review

November 8, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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It’s obviously a mere fortuitous coincidence but this weekend you have double the chance to get inspired by the lyrical words of legendary Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and hopefully get a hitch to read his work again or maybe discover it for the first time. If you most likely are going to see Interstellar you’ll notice Sir Michael Caine repeatedly recite Thomas’ famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night“, practically summing up one of the film’s main themes. Then ideally your poetic palate should be tickled hence you need to know that Set Fire To The Stars, a stylish flick that captures a pivotal moment in Dylan Thomas’ life, is out in cinemas this weekend as well.

In 1950 the celebrated poet visited America for the first time, doing a tour of art centers and campuses to perform readings of his work. He was the guest of Harvard graduate and aspiring poet John M. Brinnin who was trying to emerge within the hard-to-breach elite of New York academia. However, his task wasn’t as easy or fun as hosting your idol may sound like and despite having been warned about Thomas’ “difficult” behaviour, Brinnin was overly excited at the prospect of spending time with his hero. It didn’t take long though for Thomas to reveal his true colours. The poet was a troubled man with neglected health issues, no money, a drinking problem and a disastrously complex relationship with his equally drunken wife who remained back home.

After Thomas starts showing the first signs of his over-the-top, drunken, ragey self at post-readings parties, Brinnin quickly realizes the man can’t be dealt with roaming in and out of hotel rooms in New York City where temptations abound. And so, before accompanying him to speak at the big American ivy-league institutions, Brinnin takes the dragging drunken mess of a man to a boathouse in Connecticut where he hopes that some sort of retreat in the midst of nature might help the overwhelmed and overwhelming artist recover.

It will not be a vacation for Brinnin who has practically become Thomas’ nurse and confidante, besides already being his benefactor and butler. But the time spent away from the city is bound to at least open up the wounds and bring these two men closer together and become true friends, although not without some tension-filled cathartic moments along the way. As you may have inferred, we’re in “don’t meet your heroes” cautionary tale territory here. And yet, I think the morale is that you probably want to meet them and find out they’re just human like you and that all your insecurities and self-loathing can be overcome.

Set Fire To The Stars (a line from Thomas’ poem “Love In The Asylum“) is an actors’ film and it’s a two-men-show by the irresistibly talented Elijah Wood in the role of John M. Brinnin and Celyn Jones as Dylan Thomas. Their chemistry is perfect and albeit the material might’ve been more fitting for the stage, they’re still a pleasure to watch. Wood keeps choosing such interesting and diverse projects showing great commitment to the craft rather than a paycheck whilst Jones, who also co-wrote the film’s script with director Andy Goddard impresses quite a bit portraying such a tormented man in clear need of relief.

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Almost a character in itself is the film’s gorgeous black and white cinematography that doesn’t feel at all like a mere stylistic choice for its own sake but a well guessed one to heighten the story’s mood. Especially when the characters drive to Connecticut, the beauty of the fall landscape typical of that region leaps off the screen despite the lack of colours and it’s jaw-dropping. Director Andy Goddard who’s started on television with hits like Downton Abbey and Once Upon A Time, marks his feature film debut, showing visual promise and confidence in leading his cast.

The film won’t be everyone’s cup as the script feels like it would’ve been more functional as a theatre play but as a semi-biopic has the merit of focusing on a specific event that defined a brilliant literary figure rather than trying to surrogate his entire life in two hours. It will most likely delight those who are familiar with Dylan Thomas but might feel too academic and not that accessible to the average viewer as it can become a bit repetitive in the middle section. Still it’s a fascinating watch that can propel the uninitiated to discover one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century and a relative connoisseur like me to dust off his university tomes and get deeper into what academia didn’t spend enough time on.

Set Fire To The Stars is released in UK cinemas on November 7th

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor