If nothing else, “Set Fire to the Stars” certainly has its heart in the right place. This low-budget black-and-white British indie depicts a snapshot in the life of ill-fated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and there are moments in the film that feel pretty inspired. The few instances where it breaks away from its tight, humdrum structure and simply allows these characters to breathe, that’s where the movie shows promise. Director Andy Goddard wrote “Set Fire to the Stars” with actor Celyn Jones, who plays Thomas. The story Goddard and Jones attempt to tell is inherently fascinating, but their approach to the subject matter is just a little too dull and safe for any of the drama to be effective. Making matters worse is an overly tidy directorial style that too often keeps the audience at arm’s length, preventing us from connecting with the characters. This doesn’t mean “Set Fire to the Stars” is an all-out bad film, but it’s most definitely a disappointment.
Not every poet has a life that’s ripe with cinematic potential, but Dylan Thomas wasn’t like every other poet. His work is still being recited to this day. His most famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” was featured prominently in Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” just last year. But when you look beyond his work, you see a man whose life was incredibly tumultuous. He drank heavily and had a rocky marriage thanks to the numerous affairs he had with other women. And of course, living the life of a poet, you can only imagine how difficult it was for him to have a sustainable income. By 1950, Dylan Thomas was a complete mess, and that’s when we meet him in “Set Fire to the Stars.”
The first mistake this movie makes is centering the story primarily around John M. Brinnin, played by Elijah Wood. Based on actual events, Brinnin, an aspiring poet and academic, invites Thomas to New York with the plan to have the literary celebrity embark on a tour across America. Thomas would recite his poetry to enthralled audiences across the country and Brinnin would get to spend time with one of his heroes. That, at least, is what Brinnin hoped would happen. What he did not plan for was Thomas’s constant boozing, philandering, and overall volatile behavior, often forcing Brinnin to drag the drunkard out of bed before showcasing him to the public.
Wood does the best he can in this thankless role, but he’s mostly a blank slate throughout. The story lends itself to many dramatically potent opportunities as Brinnin grows more and more tired and weary with the poet’s behavior. Unfortunately, the movie falls flat each time. “Set Fire to the Stars” goes way too easy on Dylan Thomas; he may have his reasons for behaving so erratically, but the movie never attempts to figure out why. Instead, we’re left with an emotionally-neutered Brinnin who simply sends his hero away when the going gets too tough. The actual John Brinnin may have been an interesting man, but Elijah Wood’s portrayal is too tame and polite to have this movie revolve solely around him, especially when compared to a fascinating figure like Thomas.
Celyn Jones, on the other hand, was given the juicier role and he mostly delivers. You can tell he put a great amount of work into developing this larger-than-life character and it shows. “Set Fire to the Stars” is shot in black-and-white and has a very clear, high contrast look. Celyn Jones fits in really well with the visual style of the film; he looks like he belongs in this time period. Elijah Wood… well, he just looks like Elijah Wood. He can’t help that. But with Celyn Jones, if you saw his character in the background of an episode of “The Three Stooges,” you wouldn’t bat an eye. He just has that old-fashioned look to him, which really helps to make his behavior and mannerisms feel more believable in this movie.
Aside from his physical appearance, Celyn Jones also demonstrates remarkable control in his portrayal of Dylan Thomas. His character is all over the map in terms of his emotions. He can be a rousing orator in one scene and a drunken buffoon immediately after, yet Jones handles these shifts gracefully. The actor deftly captures the inherent sadness that’s inside this suffering poet. It’s not a perfect performance, he sometimes feels a bit too restrained in the more fiery moments, but it’s a good enough turn to make you hope the actor gets more juicy roles in the future. He definitely has the chops.
The biggest problem with “Set Fire to the Stars” is its style. It’s just too elegant and well-dressed. It’s too safe. Like the main character, Brinnin, the movie seems as if it’s afraid of truly exposing Dylan Thomas for the man he really is. It’s too focused on what this tour will do to Brinnin, when what really matters is what it will do to Thomas. Dylan Thomas died three years after this movie took place, but we don’t get that sense of doom. We see Thomas’s drunken behavior and we know he’s going down an unsavory path, but we don’t feel it. The movie never draws us in.
Brinnin invites Thomas to New York, struggles to control him before his first performance, then drives him up to Connecticut in preparation for Thomas’s next performance at Yale University. Often, the movie feels stuck going through the motions of this plot, but it does allow time for a couple nice character moments for Brinnin and Thomas. One particular scene finds the two in Connecticut telling ghost stories with a couple of Brinnin’s old acquaintances and it’s a clear highlight in the film. We get to see a side to John Brinnin that’s been otherwise hidden from us, however the movie neglects to delve much further.
Running at a brisk 95 minutes, perhaps the movie could’ve benefitted from an expanded runtime. As it is, “Set Fire to the Stars” ultimately feels like a trifle when it could’ve been so much more. Goddard and his co-writer/star Celyn Jones clearly admire Dylan Thomas and wanted to shed light on a particularly fascinating time in his life. It’s a nice enough, pleasant enough film with a couple solid performances. But when you’re making a movie about a man as unique, profound, and complex as Dylan Thomas, and you have nothing to say about him, you don’t have much of a movie. [C]