After The Edge of Love (2008), this is the second film to put a different spin on the Dylan Thomas biopic, this time focusing on American scholar John Brinnin, who invited the Welsh poet to New York in 1950 to go on a tour of Ivy league universities reading his work. Thomas’s reputation for excessive drinking and unpredictable behaviour proves challenging, and its up to Brinnin to contain him.
Brinnin is excellently played by Elijah Wood and Thomas by Celyn Jones. Their friendship makes the basis of the film and it is their chemistry that holds it together. That, and the beautiful black and white cinematography by the production design team.
In fact, the film deserves to be equally credited for its design as much as for its storytelling, which is slow in parts. If it wasn’t for the jazzy soundtrack and the imagery of fashionable New York, Set Fire To The Stars would have only two memorably poignant scenes to it. The first comes along when the pair are holed up in a cabin in the woods in Connecticut, and meet some of Brinnin’s friends, Shirley (Shirley Henderson) and Stanley (Kevin Eldon). They have a party in the house and tell ghost stories, reciting them like poetry, culminating in a story about killing a mouse that silences everyone. Then secondly, the appearance of Thomas’s wife, played by Kelly Reilly, manages to stand out as the best scene of the film, proving haunting (she’s a hallucination) and dramatically intense where other parts of the film were not.
The main problem with the film is that it never feels very revealing about Thomas’s life, aside from his alcohol addiction. His poetry is fascinating, but the film only shows a very small section of his life, so it’s difficult to see the bigger picture. It’s comparable to last year’s film about the beat generation with Daniel Radcliffe, Kill Your Darlings, that was a decent film but never seemed entirely relevant or life-changing for anyone.
There’s some good acting here, but ultimately Set Fire To The Stars may be one film that slips just a little under the radar.