“An interesting but somber look at two poets”
by Robert Pagan
During the 1950s, Harvard graduate and ambitious poet John M. Brinnin (Elijah Wood) invites the much-admired and notorious poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) to New York for a cross-country tour of poetry readings. Brinnin ignoring the rumors of Thomas’s nonsensical acts back home, he has his hands full once the poet arrives. In order to get his watchful university ministers off his back, Brinnin takes Thomas to his family retreat in the woods of Connecticut for the seclusion. But even in the middle of nowhere, the resourceful and irritable Thomas finds an audience with Brinnin for his art, passion, adoration, and aggression.
Andy Goddard’s Set Fire to the Stars tells the story of both Brinnin and Thomas. The relationship that is built throughout the film functions as the focus of the film. The two are often at complete odds with each other and appear as opposites. Nevertheless, a bond is forged and the understanding of each other is achieved.
The choice to have the film in black and white is a bold stylistic choice. The choice pays off. The uniqueness that the black and white brings to the film sets the tone or mood of the film. The contrast of the light and shadows due to the black and white create an interesting aesthetic. Much like Good Night, and Good Luck the black and white while adding to the feel of the film also illustrates the time period in which the film is set in.
The music used in the film is another great choice by Goddard. The music reflects the setting of the film. Being set in the 50’s iconic songs by Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley would most likely populate the film. While a few of the songs feature words most are orchestral or piano solos. The gloomy and subdued tone of the film is enhanced by the more instrumental score done by Gruff Rhys.
While there are often comedic lighthearted scenes, much of the film is melancholic and somber. The melancholic nature of the film is both a pro and a con. The scenes of melancholia add to the character building as well as the emotional connection the viewer has to the film. However, the pacing of the film suffers from such scenes. Many scenes drag on and the film could have moved on to the next scene much faster.
Dylan Thomas is spectacularly portrayed by Jones. Thomas’s reputation is solidified by Jones in the very first scene where we meet him. As troublemaker and unrestrained Thomas is often committing explicit acts through a variety of scenes. These are complemented well by the more internal emotional scenes of Thomas’s psyche. His struggles with smoking and his family life serve as the focus. The complex personality of both Dylan as a person and a poet is done wonderfully by Jones.
Although the many of the characters are well developed like Dylan, others are not. Brinnin is clearly underdeveloped as a character. Elijah Wood does his best with the character but we never truly get to understand Brinnin. The backstory of how he became a poet and his choice to do so is never fleshed out. One story from his early childhood is told, but it doesn’t suffice as a moment of understanding. He seems just as lost about who his is as we are. Whether this confusion is done purposefully by Goddard or not the film worsens as a result.
Set Fire to the Stars has its faults in the melancholic nature that slows the pacing of the film and the lackluster development of John Brinnin. Nonetheless, the decision to have the film be in black and white as well as the choice in music makes it all worthwhile. Celyn Jones performance as Dylan Thomas is also a highlight. The emotional range brought by Jones to the character is fascinating to watch. The film is an interesting, but somber look at two poets and the relationship built between them.