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Film Review: Set Fire To The Stars

By Miles Watts | 13th January 2015

Celyn Jones & Elijah Wood

Celyn Jones & Elijah Wood

"They were expecting this grand figure to step off the plane, and instead they got this scruffy, shambolic, unmade bed of a man. Which of course is how we all now see and love Dylan Thomas."

Celyn Jones, who plays the beloved, infamous poet and co-wrote the screenplay with director Andy Goddard, tells a chapter of Thomas’ life in Set Fire To The Stars that encapsulates what we love and have come to understand about Thomas. He was a famous drunk, womaniser and rabble-rouser, he feared and idolised his wife, he felt a sense of duty to his family and worked hard to support them, yet frequently fell prey to the vices of over-indulgence, intoxication, attention and his own fragile, monstrous ego.

It is a testament to Jones and Goddard’s screenplay that we not only love Thomas throughout the film, but that we come to love him a little more by the end. Jones’ no-holds-barred yet sympathetic performance as Thomas ensures we’re along for the ride as the poet tours American universities in 50s America.

Except it isn’t America. The stunning black and white cinematography by Chris Seager and the cunning production design by Edward Thomas transforms Swansea in 2014 into a crisp, starchy, stylish New York of the 50s, complete with snowy streets filled with classic cars, diners filled with down-and-outs and sassy waitresses and a log cabin in the woods where Thomas is practically incarcerated by his newfound guardian John M. Brinnin (Elijah Wood). While Jones is the "vampire", Wood is the victim being drained dry by the poet’s excesses and left to lie on the banks of the river, gasping for breath.

As you’d hope with a Dylan Thomas adventure, the point of course is that despite Dylan’s exhausting escapades, what he leaves with the people he has affected is a sense of looking deep into the abyss of your own soul and finding yourself forever changed by the process. Though Thomas loves to prick the pomposity bubbles of Yale dons and disgrace himself by yelling dirty limericks at them, he also incites pure, open-mouthed, speechless admiration when reciting in his warbling Welsh tones (inspired in part by his favourite village vicar, apparently) And Death Shall Have No Dominion. In a few heartbeats, you forgive Thomas all his indiscretions and stand in rapt awe of what he represents: the dark night of the soul, writ large in passion and honesty.

It is in the scenes where Thomas attempts to get the glassy Brinnin to emote and feel "something, anything real" that the film really takes off. We can see Wood’s boyish, doll-like veneer begin to waver as he is confronted with Thomas urging him to tell a horror story: "It begins ONCE… UPON… A TIME,’ he bullies, forcing Brinnin to recite a perfectly horrible incident he experienced as a child.

The largely British cast includes the quite wonderful Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon and Steve Speirs, who fill out the roles of the American characters populating Thomas’ world. As Jones puts it, "Whereas John would walk into a diner and see a drunk, a waitress and a guy in a suit, Dylan would see human endeavour, drama, heartbreak, love and humanity."

The overall tone of the film is that of a ‘delightful weekend in the country’ as Withnail might put it, an aside to an adventure you thought you were going to have, but one which ends up shaking you to your very foundations before being laid out to dry on the side of the river. The haunting score by Gruff Rhys punctuates and guides the film to several very moving moments that add up to a film which feels less like a major study of a great man and more like an intimate whisper about who he actually might have been. The rest is up to you.

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