Set Fire to the Stars review: a warm Welsh bellow

Set Fire to the Stars
    
Director: Andy Goddard
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Celyn Jones, Elijah Wood, Kelly Reilly, Shirley Henderson
Running Time: 1 hr 37 mins

When aspiring poet and academic John M Brinnin (Elijah Wood) promises his employers that he’ll keep a close eye on his boisterous charge, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones), we can feel the comic juxtaposition coming. Cut to: a roaring drunk carrying around a screaming girl at a party.

Dylan Thomas’s first trip to America is not going to end well for Brinnin, we suspect. So it proves: Brinnin simply can’t keep up with earthy, barrel-chested Welshman’s demands for Tootsie-rolls and alcohol and Superman comics. A fidgety, poignant moment, when he dons shades only to attract ridicule, alerts us that Brinnin is never going to be the cool guy who wins out. But he does genuinely believe Thomas is a genius. Determined to save his own job and Thomas’s reputation, he hauls the raucous omni-bellow off to the countryside to sober him up and quieten him down.

Shot in a gorgeous monochrome and jollied along by Gruff Rhys's deft, jazzy score, Set Fire to the Stars can't quite convince us (though it tries) that Wales is upstate New York. Yet Andy Goddard's film is classy and clever enough to mask its comparatively meagre resources.

This chapter from Thomas’s later years doesn’t provide enough narrative tension to sustain a conventional three-act film. But it does provide ample material for compelling, duelling character studies.

The entertaining Celyn Jones, who co-authored the screenplay and stars, sure knows how to roll an r. Wood, also a co-producer, is superbly understated as a man who often seems to disappear before our eyes. There are some wonderful flourishes of writing, particularly around a boozy evening with Shirley Jackson (Henderson). The moment when Kelly Reilly’s Caitlin pops up as an apparition (and sporting an entirely anachronistic Irish brogue) is so mad and misjudged it works against all odds.