Review – EIFF 2014 – Set Fire To The Stars

Set Fire To The Stars

Dir: Andy Goddard

Dylan Thomas, the legendary Welsh poet, famous for his rhythmic and imaginative verse and for his catastrophic appetite for booze, is the subject of this biopic by Downton Abbey director Andy Goddard. Played by Celyn Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with Goddard, Thomas is a whirlwind of drunken eccentricity, barely controlled by Elijah Wood’s John Brinnan, an uptight poetry professor charged with keeping Thomas straight so he can complete his tour of America. Brinnan’s job is on the line if he can’t contain Thomas’ reckless nature, while Thomas, haunted by visions of his penniless family back home, is determined to distract himself from his responsibilities in any way he can, preferably with bourbon and comic books. They leave New York and hole up in remote Connecticut, and gradually begin to bond, Brinnan struggling to understand Thomas’ unfathomable genius.

The film falls into many of the typical biopic traps that come with imitating Great Men, but there is much to recommend here. Swansea, as it turns out, works quite well as a double for 1950s New York. Filmed in stark black and white, the film is given a noir-ish ambiance that is appropriate for Thomas’ rummy anti-hero. The supporting cast smoothly prop up the main players; the ever-reliable Shirley Henderson is great as Brinnan’s kooky neighbour, and the actor Kevin Eldon is remarkably restrained as her husband. Their appearance in the film’s middle is the highlight; after that, the film doesn’t quite decide how to end itself, shifting tones on a whim. The central performances, while solid, never really take off, but portraying a man like Thomas was never going to be easy. Jones conducts himself well, playing Thomas with cherubic vulnerability while relishing his devilish side.

Goddard’s direction is admirable; he’s not afraid to take the film into surreal, impressionistic avenues, surely inspired by his subject matter. Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys provides an excellent jazz-tinged soundtrack that compliments the film rather well. It’s worth seeing, especially if you are a Dylan Thomas fan, but it might not be the award-chaser the filmmakers clearly want it to be.

***

 

Stuart Addison

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