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United Kingdom 2014
Directed by
Andy Goddard
96 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Set Fire To The Stars

Synopsis:  The story of what happened when poetry professor John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood), invited Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) on an American tour in the early 1950s.

Like My Week With Marilyn (2012) and Me And Orson Welles (2008) Set Fire to the Stars is the story of a nobody briefly seen in the effulgent light of a somebody.  The film hasn’t been well received critically and much of the negative commentary seems to pivot around its failure to give a satisfying portrait of Thomas.  But that is to undervalue something which is actually more about the Welsh poet's amanuensis and factotum, Brinnen (it was based on the latter’s memoir) and more generally about the dynamics of the celebrity/fan, talented/talentless relationship than the famous hell-raiser.

Thomas was a kind of poetry rockstar, as well-known for trashing hotel rooms, cavorting with literary groupies and throwing up backstage as he was for his distinctive poetic style and sonorous enunciation. Like so many of the real deal he died wastefully at the age of 39 as the result of alcohol poisoning, the same fate in other words as Amy Winehouse, in whose demise you can wallow in the recently screened Amy.

In the lead, British actor Celyn Jones, who also co-authored the script, gives, for me at least, an effective portrait of Thomas, who might be literally described as the paradigmatic booze artist – swinging between flights of inspiration and sodden self-indulgence  - whilst Elijah Wood, who with his ghostly pallor, pointed face with slightly protruberant eyes and plastered down hair looks remarkably like Buster Keaton, gives an engaging performance as the stoic Brinnen who increasingly feels the dichotomy between his buttoned-down world of 1950s academia to which he belongs and Thomas’s romantically-attractive, provocatively disreputable behaviour.  Shirley Henderson and Kevin Eldon also give strong performances as a couple who share a drunken evening with Thomas and Brinnen at the latter’s holiday house.  The tension between admiration for Thomas’s gift and a shrinking from the price it exacts forms the core of what is a neat account of the social value of genius – at once idol and freakshow exhibit.

Whilst responses to the film will vary no-one will dispute the appeal of Chris Seager's gorgeously pellucid black-and-white cinematography. It is well abetted by Edward Thomas's elegant art direction and production design which give the film a kind of heightened realism well-suited to the memoir form. The superb quality of the visuals alone justify the time spent with this film. 




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