BBC veteran Andy Goddard’s debut feature, Set Fire To The Stars, is an exercise in tasteful pointlessness, shot in flat black and white and scored (by Gruff Rhys, of all people) with tinkling piano and sawing strings that evoke nothing so much as an aura of cut-rate class. Set during the first week of Dylan Thomas’ 1950 American reading tour, mostly in a cabin in Connecticut, the movie finds the Welsh poet (co-writer Celyn Jones) alternately antagonizing and disappointing tour organizer John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood), who hopes to sober up Thomas before a private event at Yale. Seeing as Thomas’ alcoholism and unpredictable personality have long been part of his mystique, the only possible way to de-mystify the writer would be to make him seem boring, which Set Fire To The Stars has no intention of doing. As such, it’s left with little to do except point out that difficult artists can be hard on the people around them and to showcase some good poetry being read poorly.
Jones—who neither looks nor sounds like Thomas, a very small man with a deep, expressive voice that’s basically the envy of anyone who’s ever read their work in public—plays the poet as a one of those wise, unpretentious men-of-the-people of lit-world myth. Brinnin, whose memoir Dylan Thomas In America appears to have provided some of the source material, is his high-strung handler. Resemblance is hardly a must in biopics, but the fact that Set Fire reimagines the thin, balding Brinnin as a youthful, wide-eyed figure dwarfed by a bearish Thomas speaks to the movie’s generic approach to the story of an aspiring writer meeting his larger-than-life idol. It plays like a humorless, energy-drained variation on My Favorite Year.
The movie is dominated by badly over-written arguments, directed in the indistinguishable style of lesser British prestige TV, with no distinction between wide shots and close-ups. (Jones is at an apparent advantage, having co-written this claptrap, while Wood—a reliably interesting presence—seems at a loss as to how to make the words sound like his own.) Thomas’ debut reading at 92Y’s 1,000-seat Kaufmann Concert Hall happens off camera, presumably for budgetary reasons, and, barring a leadenly stylized sequence in which supporting characters read “Love In The Asylum” line by line, Set Fire makes no attempt to evoke the feeling of Thomas’ poetry.
Worst of all, Goddard shows no feeling for America, a country Thomas would return to for three more tours—which resulted in him becoming more popular here than anywhere else outside of Wales—and where he would die in 1954, another casualty in the storied history of the Hotel Chelsea. (Unsurprisingly, the movie itself was shot in Wales.) Meanwhile, the intensity of Thomas’ personality is mostly conveyed through reaction shots of button-down ’50s types who just can’t believe that a famous literary figure would say “fuck” out loud.