“Don’t open a book. Open a window.”
Set Fire to the Stars, directed by Andy Goddard, is among the crop of biopics which are serviceable, practical and thoroughly predictable. Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones), the fiery Welsh poet, toured America in 1950 accompanied by poet and teacher John Brinnin (Elijah Wood), who served as his ambassador. The film is blandly nice with solid acting from the ensemble, an atonal, jazzy score, exacting period details and costumes, as well as black and white being utilized for maximum shadow and smoke effect. With all of these components, the film should have been spirited, as Thomas’ work was, yet could not reach that peak. To say I knew each beat which was going to occur in this film previous to viewing it is not incorrect, despite the fact that I am not a Thomas devotee. Akin to a biopic like My Week with Marilyn, this film positions Wood’s character as the outsider spending a condensed period of time with a famous, misunderstood person and learning life-changing lessons from their short companionship. Employing this cinematic trope in a mundane fashion does not inspire wistfulness in the viewer. The few times in which Jones is allowed to burst forth his fervent oratory skills in recitation of Thomas’ poems are gripping and enthralling; more’s the pity that the film relies on a tired narrative crutch to display this sentiment.
The beginning of the film sets up the arrival of Thomas as a most precarious operation. John is repeatedly cautioned by colleagues that being his handler during the tour will be very difficult, as Thomas apparently had a notorious reputation as a belligerent alcoholic. When John first encounters Thomas, he is running through a party with a screaming woman gripped in his arms, wild and drunk. John feels like the ominous predictions could be true, yet plays it cool and extracts Thomas from the party, with few negative consequences other than fresh gossip being generated about the already talked-about foreign poet. And so the film progresses, with John playing “nursemaid” to Thomas as they travel and prepare for the poetry tour. Though Thomas is shown to be an unmanageable and embarrassing presence, due to his alcoholism, the dire warnings John is given at the beginning seem unduly inflated. Copious vomiting and blackouts are common among alcoholics; Dylan Thomas was not a Raoul Duke-type, as promised.
Celyn Jones’ channeling of Dylan Thomas is most nuanced and authentic when he is in a depressed temperament. Jones perfectly embodies the dejected look of a mid-thirties alcoholic who acknowledges their accelerated decline. A scene in which Thomas glumly sits in a Connecticut tavern holding court with a handful of curious bystanders exemplifies this feeling. Holding an old photo, in which the poet is slim with an unlined face, Thomas and his new chums remark sadly on his present bloated, slovenly incarnation. He knows that though he is a genius, famous and sought-after, he cannot handle the pressure or the culture in which his poetry exists. Thomas knows he has willfully drank himself into becoming a “horrible little imp” to deal with the pressures of a poet’s life and is unrepentant to this fact. Spitting up blood daily and being the unwilling object of admiration for untold amounts of people had drawn Thomas to this painted-in corner of alcoholic pathos.
The poetry of Dylan Thomas is not so much analyzed in this film, rather his actions in relation to John stand-in to illustrate the turbulent beauty of his work. The pair share an evening of drunken revelry, as well as intense collaboration to ensure a successful tour. John is equally in admiration of Thomas’ genius and repulsed by his disregard for his own health or the criticisms of academics. Elijah Wood has the knack of exuding a naive quality, which is useful to keep this character from devolving into a jealous sycophant. In all, John becomes more free by observing the raucous actions of Thomas, which predictively lead him to a life outside the confines of strict academia. The closing of the film shows Thomas on stage reciting the poem Fern Hill in full masterful voice, as the scene cuts to John grading papers with a slight longing smile resting on his face. The poem with such stirring words as:
“Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
could have better closed out the film, instead of the stale image of John who is inspired by his memories of Thomas.