EIFF 2014: Set Fire To The Stars review

Andrew finds lots to like in this thoughtful movie about Dylan Thomas

The first time I saw Andy Goddard’s work, it was in the 2006 Torchwood episode Countrycide, which featured John Barrowman kneecapping cannibals with a shotgun.

Set Fire To The Stars, directed and co-written by Goddard with actor Celyn Jones, is visually impressive, but also immeasurably more lyrical and thoughtful than you might be expecting. This is less of a surprise considering its subject matter: the story of Dylan Thomas’s first visit to New York (his death in the city was dramatised in the recent BBC drama A Poet in New York, with Ewen Bremner playing the same role Elijah Wood does in this film).

Here, Jones plays Dylan Thomas, visiting 50s New York (Swansea), Connecticut (Swansea) and Yale (also Swansea) at the request of Elijah Wood’s lapsed poet, the academic John Malcolm Brinnin. Through a combination of monochrome, visual effects, and simply excellent use of locations, Set Fire To The Stars‘ New York looks stunning. There’s what looks like a CG vista of a snow-covered city, and if you could put a massive .gif of it in your front room, you would. It also sounds great, with some simple and intelligent sound design, cross fades from vocals to music, and a soundtrack by Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals/Neon Neon fame. On a technical level, this is a superb production.

There’s also a satisfying depth to Brinnin’s attempts to keep Thomas healthy/alive enough to perform his tour. There’s a slightly awkward message here for any reviewer. Thomas advocates feeling, instinct: acting as he pleases and infuriating Brinnin as much as he delights. Brinnin, now an academic, has been marking work by students, and is now dissecting words rather than feeling them. Essentially, what reviewers are partly meant to do to the film. Thanks for that, filmmakers.

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Thomas and Brinnin look and feel like a comedy double act, with Wood the overawed straight man to Jones’ mercurial man-child. The film is funny, and the presence of Kevin Eldon in the cast suggests, perhaps, a certain kind of outlandishness, but everything is played with a deadpan realism. Eldon is not playing Paul Hamilton here. Very little of the dialogue is delivered by someone who knows that it is funny, with Thomas offering a few exceptions.

Wood is commendably restrained, paring back his performance to allow the outlandish Thomas all the more contrast with him. Jones (Fabrizio in Da Vinci’s Demons) was also in the screening directly before this one, looking similar enough, but was still unrecognisable. It’s an immersive performance, and while the role of Dylan Thomas obviously gives you plenty to get your teeth into, it doesn’t feel like someone acting. Making the myriad unexpectancies feel natural is quite an accomplishment. Equally good, but with much less screen time, is Kelly Reilly as Caitlin Thomas, voracious and intense in her one scene. Eldon and Shirley Henderson appear as a couple offering a warped reflection of Brinnin and Thomas, and Steven Mackintosh puts in a great, unshowy supporting turn as Brinnin’s academic friend Jack.

The strength of the performances is married to a strong script, thematically astute and subtly devastating in its own small way. The adage ‘Never meet your heroes’ springs to mind, and is immediately obvious for various reasons, but as well as the chaos that Thomas brings there are also some harsher truths unearthed during Brinnin’s upheaval, about the difficulty of a relationship with genius, and about the closeted self-importance of academia. This is all the harsher when you consider that Brinnin was no slouch, and that Thomas would eventually die in America as his health deteriorated.

All in all, for a debut feature length (a new production company was formed around the making of this movie), it’s an impressive feat and has attracted an equally impressive cast who do the script justice. Even if this film doesn’t sound like your cup of tea (and a knowledge of poetry is not essential), it’s worth keeping an eye out for the names involved in getting it off the ground, and their future projects.

If we’ve very lucky, we might get something that combines the production values, thoughtfulness, depth and realism of Set Fire To The Stars, but that also features someone driving a tractor through a wall in slow motion.

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4 out of 5