Set Fire to the Stars
Set Fire to the Stars, drama, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 2.5 chiles
In 1950 a young poet named John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood) undertook to bring the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to America for a reading tour of colleges and universities. When his board (he was director of the Poetry Society for the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association) worries that Thomas’ reputation as a rowdy drunk could present a problem, Brinnin flippantly replies, “How much trouble can one poet be?”
For the answer, see this modestly appealing little black-and-white film directed by Andy Goddard and co-written by him and its other star, Celyn Jones, a Welsh actor with a background in British television and a credible physical resemblance to Thomas. Another character describes Thomas as a “man-child,” and he lives up to that billing, acting out like a threeyear-old on steroids — or rather, booze — and then pouting or looking contrite with a quivering lip and an anxious smile. But the man could write poetry like a god, and he could recite it too, with his velvet Welsh tones caressing the words in his distinctive and seductive rolling cadence.
Thomas was such a mesmerizing performer that the movie’s decision to minimize his readings comes as a surprise and a disappointment. We do hear him recite, but far too little — he approaches the lectern on unsteady feet, begins in a surprisingly strong voice, and then the soundtrack fades. There are a few nice moments of reading, but if we were seeing a movie about Elvis we’d want all the hits we could get.
One of the film’s best scenes finds Brinnin and his charge retreating to Brinnin’s Connecticut woodland cabin to dry the poet out before his much-anticipated reading at Yale. A couple of neighbors, writer Shirley Jackson (Shirley Henderson), best known for her story “The Lottery,” and her husband, critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Kevin Eldon), drop over, and after dinner they get to spinning ghost stories. Jackson’s is mesmerizingly told by Henderson, but instead of getting a topper from the Welshman, we get an oddly discomfiting true tale from Brinnin. Still, the scene is the movie’s highlight.
Thomas’ wife, Caitlin, makes a fantasy appearance via his much-postponed reading of a letter from her, and she is well played by Kelly Reilly as a lusty powerhouse who reduces her man to a cowering, quivering jelly.
Thomas returned to America several more times and died in a New York hospital in 1953, three years after this film’s setting. Legend has it that alcohol killed him, but recent scholarship suggests that the immediate cause was pneumonia misdiagnosed by his celebrity physician. So perhaps Dylan Thomas did, after all, go gentle into that good night. — Jonathan Richards
Here’s rooking at you: Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones