New York poet and Literature and Creative Writing professor, John Brinnin (Elijah Wood), thrusts himself over his head when he proposes to guide Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones), on his first American poetry tour in 1950. Brinnin soon discovers that Thomas is a wild card, possessed by pandemonium and, as an infamous alcoholic, is devoid of any sense of responsibility to others.
A film based on true events, Set Fire to the Stars is British director Andy Goddard’s first feature film. Like most firsts, there was the initial excitement of the opening, jazz music and all, followed by bouts of anticipation, simultaneous awareness and misperception throughout, and then, a premature end. As the final credits roll, you’re left debating whether it was a movie worth watching, and with an unresolved hope that maybe Goddard’s next film will be better.
The whole film is shot in black and white, and although the lack of colour was probably a stylistic choice, the film’s story-world is far more convincing via the classic 50’s hair and makeup; Chris Seager’s effortlessly cool cinematography; and Gruff Rhys’ mostly methodical use of archetypal instrumentals.
Rhys’ soundtrack, along with a flawlessly delivered and completely captivating scene involving Brinnin and Shirley (Shirley Henderson), is one of the saviours of this film. That’s until the letter scene, which is followed by the recital of Thomas’ “Love in the Asylum” poem (a line from which the title of the film is based), and could be a show-reel for Goddard with the number of techniques he’s crammed into it. These scenes are so stylistically dissimilar to the rest, and for a few minutes it’s as though you’re watching a totally different film altogether. Nonetheless, extracts of poems included in earlier scenes of the film are strongly delivered via Brinnin’s dialogue and as a result, the symbolism of those lines is still present but does not disturb the narrative flow; the way “Love in the Asylum” is recited however, seems superfluous.
Another questionable stylistic issue is the editing. Aside from the odd transition, most cuts are abrupt with no ease into the subsequent scene and so the pace of the overall film feels somewhat rushed. On the other hand, Wood and Jones are brilliant at exposing their characters’ multifaceted personalities beyond the literary and societal archetypes they are confronted by in the story-world; one only wishes the script was slightly longer so as to see their characters develop further.
This film, like Thomas and his poetry, may simply be a means of personal art for the tastes of few rather than public entertainment for many. After all, the most memorable lines of the film, said by Thomas, are: “It’s about feeling something, clarity and understanding are last” and “Don’t open a book, open a window.” If it’s all about maintaining the purity of art through feeling and being open to the big picture rather than picking apart the art, and thus destroying the artist, via comprehensive analysis, this review of Set Fire to the Stars may be unjust. Then again, you can’t set fire to something that’s already burning.