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Set Fire to the Stars

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jul 21, 2015
Set Fire to the Stars

Andy Goddard's debut feature takes an intimate -- sometimes claustrophobic -- look at Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and American poet and scholar John Malcolm Brinnin, who brought Thomas to America for the first time.

Goddard co-wrote the script with Celyn Jones, who also portrays Thomas and seems to have a rip-roaring good time at it. The mild Brinnin (played here by Elijah Wood) has assured his superiors that he can handle the poet, who has a reputation for ribaldry; Thomas, of course, has other ideas. Thomas is like a human hurricane, leaving devastation in his wake, and Brinnin is finally forced to get him out of New York City and into the country, where Brinnin has a cabin in the woods. What follows is an examination of the gap between creative brilliance and personality: Thomas is a self-centered boor, often drunk and never mindful, or grateful, of the way Brinnin has gone out of his way on Thomas' behalf.

Somehow, this innately lively material refuses to come to life except in brief, spasmodic moments. Despite Thomas' bad behavior, a good deal of the friction between the two men centers around a letter from Thomas' wife that the poet refuses to open and read; Brinnin, for reasons that remain murky, obsesses over this letter and the negligence Thomas shows it. The dialogue is tepid and, despite the film's late 1940s setting, sounds contemporary. The film is presented in black and white, as if to make up for the movie's inability to pull us out of the 21st century and into a simpler, more rustic time and place, but rather than adding atmosphere the black and white cinematography comes across as flat (with one or two moments, including a gorgeous wintry establishing shot of Manhattan by night, standing out).

Much of the film amounts to a two-hander between Wood and Jones. What could, if mounted on the stage, be realized as a decent play makes for a thin, tedious movie enlivened in a couple of passages by dazzling turns that come not from the boys -- indeed, the male characters in this film are nothing if not juvenile -- but rather from a small set of live-wire actresses, including Shirley Henderson as Shirley Hyman (one of Brinnin's neighbors out there in the woods), Maimie McCoy as Rosie, a peppery diner waitress, and Kelly Reilly as Thomas' wife, Caitlyn.

The latter appears as Thomas finally reads his wife's letter; her words send him into such a state of excitation that Thomas is left nearly gibbering: "A ground-shaking celestial furnace of a creature," he cries, dashing about to gather his things, and in a white-hot frenzy to cut his American visit short and head home despite the shambles he's made of Brinnin's life and career. "That penmanship -- ah, and those thighs!" he adds.

It's line both laughable and relatable (who hasn't had moments of mad lust for an absent partner?). Brinnin responds with a line that sounds ripped form a hack's typewriter: "You've gorged on my heart and left me nothing!" On balance, one prefers Thomas' lusty, nearly disjointed verbal revels to Brinnin's dry, wheezy complaints.

Mysteriously, one of Thomas' best scenes -- in which he recites a stunning and beautiful poem -- is left out of the film, though it's included as one of the deleted scenes featured in this DVD's extras. Four other poems -- "Love in the Asylum," which is recited in the movie on a montage that gives all of the film's characters a line or two, as well as "If I Were Tickled by the Rub of Love," "In My Craft or Sullen Art," and "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" -- are also included, read by Celyn Jones and set to stills from the movie, both in front of the camera and behind it.

Another extra of "Gruff in Metropolis," a featurette narrated by Jones that takes a look at the minimalistic, jazzy soundtrack by Gruff Rhys (one of film's few elements that does effectively hearken to the time period in question).

Dylan Thomas fans will want to check this out; Elijah Wood completists, also, will enjoy this, and might rank Wood's performance here somewhere between his work in "The Ice Storm" and "Wilfred." The wider world will never even hear of this title. It's hardly going to set fire to anybody's DVD player.


"Set Fire to the Stars"
Strand Releasing
$27.99
http://strandreleasing.com/films/set-fire-stars/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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