Suffer the First Vision: Goddard’s Debut Anchored in Episode of Literary Distress
Doomed Welsh poet Dylan Thomas gets a contemporary biopic treatment in Set Fire to the Stars, taking its name from the last line of his poem “Love in the Asylum.” The film marks the feature debut of British television alum Andy Goddard (“Torchwood,” “Downton Abbey”) and is presented in striking black and white, giving the visual attributes a dramatic edge over the familiar succession of beats often evidenced in these portraits of mad artists. Told through the perspective of poet and literary critic John Brinnin, the man responsible for bringing Thomas to the US for the first time, the treatment is based partially on his highly criticized account, Dylan Thomas in America. Goddard and co-writer Celyn Jones (who stars as Thomas) don’t appear to take many liberties and/or risks, despite some slight implications concerning Brinnin’s latent desires.
Harvard professor and American poet John M. Brinnin (Elijah Wood) has organized famed Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’ (Celyn Jones) first US tour, a 40 date event greeted with a certain amount of hesitation by Brinnin’s colleagues, including Jack (Steve Mackintosh). The troubled poet’s reputation certainly preceded him, and Brinnin wasn’t expecting the amount of trouble Thomas would cause, including getting them kicked out of their fancy New York hotel room. Absconding to Connecticut in order to elude the vice of the city, Brinnin bonds with Thomas, but the experience ultimately proves to be overwhelmingly exhausting.
Set Fire to the Stars belongs to a recent trend of cinematic recuperations depicting the troubled or provocative moments of famed poets and authors. Films like Howl (2010), Kill Your Darlings (2013), and even Walter Salles’ On the Road (2012) have all capitalized on the continued cultural fascination with the Beat poets. Goddard lands on something a bit more obscure with this glance at a particular moment in time for Dylan Thomas, though the beautiful framing often surpasses the film’s dramatic potential (not unlike Big Sur, another Beat rehash vibrantly relating a particular chapter in Kerouac’s life). Thomas’ own work has been adapted several times in cinema, with Ethan Hawke’s Chelsea Walls using two pieces for inspiration, and Andrew Sinclair’s definitive film version of the play Under Milk Wood (1972) an interesting if sometimes labored production.
Welsh actor Celyn Jones is the real discovery here, his performance recalling Christian McKay’s underappreciated turn in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2008). Not surprisingly, he shines when drunk and angry, dousing the pompous and conservative alumni of Yale with naughty limericks, or brawling his way blearily through parties and crowds in ways recalling Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 portrait of Bukowski in Barfly (1987). Less successful is a nearly impenetrable Elijah Wood as the less notable poet John Brinnin, whose trajectory might have been of more interest. We pick up on his conflicts and frustrations peripherally, leading to one notably dramatic blow-up between the two writers, but even this feels of little consequence. More effective is the brief appearance of Kelly Reilly as Thomas’ wife, materializing when he finally opens a neglected correspondence. Steve Mackintosh is saddled in running through the typical set of mingy academic stereotypes, while Shirley Henderson, as usual, appears with a burst of energy in an extended sequence.
Goddard closes on an enigmatic reading of “Love in the Asylum,” each of the major cast members addressing the camera and reciting a verse. Touching, poetic, and funereal, it’s an appropriate end to this parting glance at the famed poet.