Set Fire To The Stars

Set Fire To The Stars (2014)

Set Fire To The Stars first published by Sight & Sound, December 2014

Review: “Paradise!” declares Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones, also the co-writer), as he enters a diner in Fairfield County, Connecticut. “That’s one word for it,” says his more sceptical companion, John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood). Here there appears to be more than one word for everything. The waitress Rosie (Maimie MacCoy) effortlessly converts customers’ orders into an unintelligible stream of ‘diner lingo’ (“Two chicks on a raft, wreck ’em”, etc.), yet is puzzled by Brinnin’s description of himself as Thomas’ “Boswell, his amanuensis” (“You must be a poet, you speak funny”), and misconstrues Brinnin’s assertion that Thomas is from Wales as a Moby Dick reference (unaware that earlier Brinnin has been referred to as the “man to captain this ship” and “Ahab”). Yet while Thomas may be a “strange little foreign man” in a foreign land, he is keen and quick to assimilate, and is soon happily sharing a drink, hard-luck stories and Hamlet quotes with a stranger (Richard Brake). There is resonant poetry everywhere here for those, like Thomas, who will lend their ear. Local boy Brinnin, however, remains aloof and isolated, sitting apart and so out of tune with his own people that he fails to understand a direct proposition from Rosie to meet after work.

Very loosely expanded from the first 30 or so pages of the real Brinnin’s 1957 book Dylan Thomas in America, and overlapping to a degree with the BBC series A Poet In New York (2014), Set Fire To The Stars is the feature debut from regular TV director Andy Goddard. Set in the winter of 1950, it is a study in words and character, as Brinnin, recently granted a poetry professorship and brimming with ambition, finds himself playing “benefactor, babysitter, nursemaid” to “the purest lyrical poet in the English-speaking world” on his first tour of America – and free-falling in the orbit of an unfathomably talented wordsmith on a self-destructive binge. What follows is a clash of Apollonian and Dionysian poetics: where bookish Brinnin wishes to reduce Thomas’ work to theory, labelling and analysis, for Thomas poetry comes from a surrender to the emotions (and booze), from the ambiguous slippage of words and from an engagement with life beyond the ivory tower; and where Brinnin places marks and critiques against his students’ work, the impassioned words of a letter from Thomas’ wife Caitlin conjure for him (and for us too) a living, breathing Muse (Kelly Reilly) to be loved and feared. These two men of letters relate to poetry – and the world – in very different ways, yet find a common language of friendship, even if Brinnin, in his final conversation with Thomas, is uncharacteristically lost for words.

This melancholic, monochrome vision of Truman-era East Coast America has all been beautifully recreated in Wales (in furtherance of the film’s themes of US-Welsh exchange). The paradise of the ‘Connecticut’ countryside contrasts with the New York towerscapes, here rendered in stylised monochrome CGI as a snowglobe Sin City (which also featured Wood). Thomas would succumb to her fatal temptations, and his own demons, in 1953 – but Set Fire To The Stars is equally concerned with Brinnin’s difficult emergence from the stuffy, gated Gardens of Academe to the messier reality outside.

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Synopsis: New York, 1950. Sponsored by his colleague Jack, young, newly appointed professor of poetry John Malcolm Brinnin receives a grant to bring over his hero Dylan Thomas on his first reading tour of America, but is warned that a failure to keep the Welsh poet’s notorious rabble-rousing under control will cost him his career. When the already ailing Thomas proves unable to resist the temptations of New York’s bars and parties, Brinnin drives him to his family’s riverside vacation cabin in Connecticut to recover before a crucial appearance at Jack’s alma mater, Yale. Thomas gradually befriends Brinnin as they share experiences and discuss poetry. Married neighbours (and writers) Shirley and Stanley come over for a night of boxing, storytelling and adultery. On the eve of his Yale appearance, Thomas drinks himself into a stupor – and then, after a decent recital there, insults the senior academics over dinner. Jack informs Brinnin that his professorship is over. Feeling utterly betrayed, Brinnin insists that Thomas finally read the letter from his wife Caitlin that he has thus far studiously left unopened (and tried several times to lose). Galvanised by the impassioned letter, Thomas completes the tour with renewed vigour so he can return home to his family.

Anton Bitel