Set Fire to the Stars – Movie Review by Frank L.
Director: Andy Goddard
Writers: Andy Goddard, Celyn Jones
Stars: Elijah Wood, Celyn Jones, Kelly Reilly
John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood) was a young, unworldly poet locked into the world of American acadaemia into which he naively invites in 1949, the hell-raising, hard drinking, Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones who with Andy Goddard co-wrote the script) to undertake a tour of the continent’s great universities which of their very nature were not going to find the explosiveness of Thomas’s personality a phenomenon which would lie with ease within their midst. Brinnin had little grasp of what might lie ahead. In the beginning of the movie, he recites over and over again the list, which is long, of the universities so that he will not forget any one of them at the interview he is about to endure with his academic superiors in order to get the green light for the tour. Thomas’s reputation for chaos is known to the academics and Brinnin just about manages to satisfy their qualms initially dismissing their fears with a flippant reply. Dylan duly arrives in New York and instantly his behaviour is out of line with what is acceptable. In order to keep him under some sort of control, Brinnin effectively maroons Thomas far from the bright lights (and bars) of Manhattan and places him under lock and key with himself in his family’s holiday home in what Brinnin hoped would be a controlled environment.
The film is about the week they spend together and the lecture Thomas gave in Yale. A noteworthy phenomenon about the film is that its filming location was primarily Wales very far from Manhattan but it works, in fact it works well. The highlight of the film is the uneasy, angular relationship between Brinnin and Thomas which Woods and Jones maintain at an appropriate acute. They have areas where their lives intersect harmoniously and other areas where their lives are in dissonance. The use of black and white throughout keeps the uncertainty of the relationship in sharp focus. There are some splendid touches such as an early television set replete with rabbit’s ears which have to be hand held in order to get any sort of reception; the screen constantly slips and the images can just about be seen in a never ceasing storm of snow. Equally impressive were the literary neighbours, the dull husband (Kevin Eldon) and the magnificently unpredictable wife (Shirley Henderson). She is trouble but she tells magnificently a ghost story which results in Thomas forcing Brinnin to tell one too which he performs with a quiet, slow, unsettling tension. A splendid sequence.
At all times there is the awareness that Thomas is not reconcilable to the world of being a performer for the cognoscenti of academe. His very essence sits uneasily with their perceived rationality. The film portrays the fissured alignment of the certainties of academe and the uncertainties of bohemian genius. It is a pleasure to watch.
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