Dylan Thomas’ first jaunt to America is explored in Andy Goddard’s understated but likable Set Fire to the Stars (2014). The centenary of Thomas’ birth this year means we’re also getting an adaptation of Under Milk Wood to come – directed by Kevin Allen and reportedly starring Rhys Ifans and Charlotte Church – but this melancholic picture, filmed in South Wales, should make a fine addition to contemporary reflections on the famously roguish poet. Former Hobbit Elijah Wood plays John M. Brinnin, a buttoned-up creative writing tutor at an austere East Coast university who nevertheless invites the rambunctious Welshman to the States for a 40-night tour in 1950.
Thomas, played by co-writer Celyn Jones, arrives as a drunk, partying animal, and early scenes see the diminutive Brinnin try to stave Thomas off terrorising the faculty, all played to a breezy free jazz soundtrack (composed by Super Furry Animal’s frontman and American Interior (2014) star Gruff Rhys). Filmed in black and white, South Wales looks splendid as a snowy New York and later as an up-state Connecticut, with much of the film set at Brinnin’s rural country hut. There, the two reflect and read poetry, whilst the film takes the expected note of turning the straight-laced Brinnin into the more natural, intuitive guy that he sees as so important to Thomas’ being. Brinnin’s realisation that Thomas is a far different, more volatile individual than he expected is genuinely affecting.
Wood, who has diversified his career a little awkwardly into wayward films like Franck Khalfoun’s recent Maniac remake, is earnest but not artificial, much like some of his earlier roles (1997’s The Ice Storm, another period drama set in Connecticut, springs to mind). Jones, who is eager and watchable rather than an electrifying presence as Thomas, is reminiscent of a younger Anthony Hopkins (though perhaps all big-voiced Welshmen do). Goddard never quite articulates the legend of Thomas – some of the poet’s more off the wall creative outbursts spring almost from completely vacant expressions – but there are some noteworthy artistic moments including an atmospheric (particularly in monochrome) ghost story reading mid-way through proceedings.
Played in a minor key, Set Fire to the Stars perhaps relies too heavily on knowledge of Thomas’ personal life and particularly his dysfunctional estrangement from his wife (Kelly Reilly). The poem Love in the Asylum, from where the film’s title comes, is read aloud in a rather effective sequence towards the close, but the madness from which creativity springs is perhaps too far away from the film’s actual content. Saying that, there are some choice poetry readings, while Jones – perpetually hungover – recites a stunning version of And Death Shall Have No Dominion in front of a Yale board of governors. Famous for his drunken performances on his tour, we don’t see much of that side of Thomas. It’s somewhat of a shame, not because the friendship between Brinnin and himself wasn’t absorbing, but because Goddard’s film had more time to tell a fuller story.
This review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 68th Edinburgh International Film Festival.