In 1950, Poetry professor John M. Brinnin (Elijah Wood) brings celebrated poet Dylan Thomas to America for a spoken word tour. Believing Thomas to be one of the most beautiful and lyrical poets in the English language, Brinnin is utterly unprepared for the tornado of drinking, illness and despair that Thomas brings with him.
It is fairly common knowledge that Dylan Thomas, while he wrote stunningly beautiful and moving poetry, was a bit of a hellraiser, and this is the focus of the Welsh film Set Fire to the Stars.
Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones work wonderfully on screen together; Wood’s ordered and careful character’s world is thrown into chaos by Thomas’ arrival and Jones, while portraying Thomas to be a drunk, allows the sensitivity and curiosity about people to shine through. The two are perfect foils for one another, and it is with them that the film lives and dies. The rest of the cast is made up of Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon, Kelly Reilly and Steven Mackintosh.
Set Fire to the Stars is beautifully shot in black and white, but there are still times when it is obvious that the film was not shot in the US, This should not matter, but since Andy Goddard and Celyn Jones’ script is rather languid and dialogue heavy, this gives the audience’s eye time to wander, and realise that all is not as it should be. Small details are distracting, enough to draw attention from the character study on the screen. Jones and Goddard’s script also feels rather slight for much of the running time. It is clear, from the outset, that Thomas’ presence is going to be disruptive, but there is rarely a moment where Wood’s character rails against this, making Thomas the abuser, and Brinning the almost willing victim.
The film is gorgeously shot, and heavily stylised, with Goddard’s direction allowing Wood to showcase his strength and command as an actor; in a story telling scene, he has the audience – and assembled characters – eating from his hands. That said, there are not enough of these engrossing moments to make the film work and a film that could have been an examination of the potential abuse of power between a destructive artist and an adoring fan becomes a test of how much Wood’s character can withstand.
Set Fire to the Stars is a beautifully shot, heavily stylised but slight film, which relies on dialogue to create interest, interest that rarely arises. Jones and Wood excel with their characters but in the end, Set Fire to the Stars loses track of what it is trying to say, and becomes a pretty but bedraggled film.