Sunday, June 21, 2015

Movie Review: "Set Fire to the Stars" (US, 2015)

© Strand Releasing

Like a jazz concert that begins with an impromptu jam session, playful and improvised, right before the rhythm sets in, this account of renowned Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas', first US tour is as lyrical and curious as the man himself. What it lacks, however, is the dynamo energy that the rambunctious Thomas was known for, hitting the wrong notes in a failed attempt to limit the focus. Portrayed beautifully by the script's co-writer, Celyn Jones, Dylan is injected with copious amounts of mystery and fascination, draining the film and other characters of any at all.

Set in 1950 at the tale end of Thomas' life, John Brinnan (Elijah Wood), invites the infamous poet to the States for a series of readings, ignoring the warnings that Thomas might be too much trouble for bow-tied, buttoned-up poetry professor to handle. Determined to deliver this boozy and aggressive legend to the sold-out speaking engagements as promised, John scoops Thomas out of Manhattan and into a backwoods Connecticut cabin in hopes of sobering him up—and, perhaps, get to know the man behind the words.

The humor and playfulness of the beginning was like a real-life Get Him to the Greek, but it quickly changed course, veering into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory—without far less quirky charm. On more than one occasion, the script edges on hokey, with John asking Dylan desperate things like "From what spring does it pour?" in response to Thomas' poetic musings. It just wasn't relatable, and that's a problem when it comes to who John was meant to be in the story: all of us. Despite Celyn Jones' embodiment of this character, he doesn't have an equal partner in Woods. The character of John Brinnan is a conundrum, as he struggles to balance his fandom with the frustration of this absolute stranger ruining his life.

That in and of itself should have been enough to relate us to him, but in actuality, Brinnan is written as a mysterious character you never feel compelled to know. When he's not being a doormat, he's being a bully, highlighted in his odd insistence that Thomas open a letter received from his wife. All combined, it is enough to derail the momentum of the story. It doesn't help that the upfront promise of the film revolved around the importance of the speaking tour, which was dismissed pretty readily when the events actually occur.

There is one exception, though, a balance to the madness Jones brings to his role. Andy Goddard directs a visually stunning film, shot in Ingmar Bergman-like black and white. He and Jones co-wrote the film together, and it's clear that their vision served to compliment one another's roles. There is also a memorable house party sequence (again, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf), featuring Shirley Henderson with an American accent telling a ghost story bathed in lantern light. A standout, to say the least, but it still contributes to the lack of consistency in the film as a whole. Dylan Thomas is too interesting a figure to be limited by this restrictive movie.

Rating: ★★ / 5 stars

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