Set Fire to the Stars

Set Fire to the Stars, drama, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cin­ema, 2.5 chiles

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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

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