Elijah Wood stars in Set Fire to the Stars, a new film about Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and his rocky relationship with poet and literary critic John William Brinnin. Thomas was a man to try many souls. He lived large, and in 1953, died large in New York City. When I studied acting at HB Studios, after class I often went with other actors to the White Horse Tavern around the corner. There, we shared a few stories about how the White Horse was Thomas’s hangout. There, the poet expressed his lunacies, brayed, brawled and cavorted. We imagined that the White Horse even may have been the last tavern where he drank himself into the stupor that transported into the sickness and coma from which he never regained consciousness.
It is the hellion Dylan Thomas who “terrorizes,” charms and overthrows the academic, poet and literary critic John William Brinnin (Elijah Wood), in the Set Fire to The Stars, directed by Andy Goddard. Goddard co-wrote the screenplay with Celyn Jones who portrays Dylan Thomas in this biopic. The title references Thomas’ poem Love in the Asylum read toward the film’s end.
The film aligns with partial truths, inspired by real events. One accurate detail is that Brinnin’s love and appreciation of Thomas’ work inspired him to petition fellow academics to sponsor the poet on a first time visit to the US for a reading tour. Brinnin sets up the tour in the country’s most renowned universities, even though the conservative academics have reservations about Thomas’ decency, sanity and sobriety; Thomas’ reputation for alcoholic mania preceded him.
It is the great irony of the film that Brinnin’s lionization of Thomas’ poetic witchcraft on paper fades in a clouded haze when he witnesses Thomas’ blighted addictions to drink, partying and self-destruction. In the flesh, the poet is impossible to reckon with once the first drops of alcohol pass his lips. We travel along Brinnin’s journey with Thomas as he attempts to bring the poet to the venues of the tour all the while contending with his legion of alcohol-unleashed demons stirred up to confound, burn and blast those around him, especially Brinnin.
The film chronicles Brinnin’s troubles with the academic set while he sails along the rocky shoals of Thomas’ destructive spirit. Brinnin intuits he must keep Thomas ripe enough for his reading commitments, yet sober enough not to escape his confinement and disappear. He decides to keep Thomas entertained but at a safe distance from the brink of alcoholic oblivion when Thomas becomes a tornado and wrecks whatever is in his path. It is a finely tuned performance that the reserved Brinnin must enact. It doesn’t help that envious Jack, the academic liaison, is in his face about checking Thomas’ boozy infamy at the gates of sobriety.
The film implies that Jack’s has a competitive dislike of Brinnin. He surreptitiously sets him up for failure. The first failure occurs at a party to celebrate Thomas’ arrival in New York City. The gathering dissolves into complete chaos spurred on by Thomas’ outrageous debauchery. Jack warns Brinnin that he must take better control of Thomas so the tour will not be an embarrassment and waste of time and money. The warning is a veiled threat and Brinnin knows if he does well, his academic career will soar. If he fails one to many times, it’s the abyss.
The next day, when the hotel politely ejects Thomas for his drunken tyrannies, Brinnin is at his wits end to diffuse the situation and keep Thomas sane. Withholding the circumstances from Jack and with nowhere to stay that does not have alcohol or access to the stuff of Thomas’ willful destruction, Brinnin creates a quick solution. Thomas must be bright and shiny for a prestigious, private reading with Yale’s governing board in a few days. Jack has arranged this to feather his own nest and give himself glory.
Brinnin spirits Thomas away to a secret place unbeknownst to Jack from whom he has been incommunicado. Jack is in “high dudgeon.” Brinnin knows his career is at stake, and he must find favor with the elite Yaleites. He is determined to get Thomas to the reading sober, and not be at the mercy of Jack’s wrath which will unleash the academic devils on the other side of hell from Thomas’ demons.
Brinnin’s brinkmanship is spot on. He brings the hungover, mind-fogged Thomas to his family retreat in Connecticut. There, he encourages Thomas to overcome himself and his suicidal longing to drown in drink. At the cabin, Brinnin and Thomas gain profound moments in the natural landscape. Along with Brinnin we are lulled into believing that he that Thomas needs quiet: the soul origins of poetry, the peace and tranquility that stirs the muses. For Thomas who knows how alluring Manhattan ravages his mind and being, it is a respite, not unwelcome, but solitary and inward driving.
Brinnin grows closer to the Welsh poet; it is an inspired time. He confronts his own creative abilities. He analyzes Thomas’ psyche and attempts to divine the seat of his talents. Here the ironies converge and themes are clarified. Brinnin has deceived himself; Thomas sets him straight. Brinnin has made assumptions about Thomas’ craft that have obviated the deeper elements of who Thomas is, what his poetry is about and how he crafts his powerful art. Like all of us do with icons we deify, Brinnin has been projecting his own visions onto Thomas. The reality is different. With Thomas, as with all great artists, emotional genius is ephemeral. Thomas is a cypher.
He is also a dual, multiple-personalitied being. Like all raging alcoholics who play cat and mouse with their handlers when stashing booze, Thomas’ powers of deception are anointed. He has been less than honest with Brinnin throughout and Brinnin cannot tell the extent to which Thomas has been real or has been luminous in manipulating him. Brinnin wrangled Thomas like a caged bull. The poet, like anyone, would abhor this, but Thomas has been charming.
The climax explodes the day Thomas gives the Yale board their private reading. Brinnin finds Thomas in a stupor, but manages to get him there severely hung over. But when Thomas reads, he is stunning and wins the day. Afterward, the smugly self-satisfied, robed governors have deigned to chat with the great poet whose reading they applauded. But Thomas’ charm is held at bay by their upper-class airs. With wanton acuity, he strikes at the heart of their elitist, hypocritical pretensions and reduces their egos to powder. The scene is amazing, humorous, brilliantly written.
Brinnin is sacrificed on the altar of conservatism and propriety and he falls on his own sword. The situation disintegrates every lovely thought Brinnin held about Thomas. Jack, present at the meeting, unleashes his devils. He becomes the vengeful warlock Brinnin feared would destroy his career. Both Thomas’ and Jack’s hellish inner state have raged at Brinnin. But only Thomas apologizes. Brinnin does understand his response to the Yale academics. However, Jack will never apologize. He blames Brinnin for Thomas’ sordid, rapier wit slicing through the stuffy snobs. He will destroy Brinnin’s career, since he believes his own advancement has been stymied by this unforgettable sit-down.
After Brinnin returns to the cabin with Thomas, the poet has a grounding vision of his wife. It is as if the demons have left and found other hosts to plague. The academics hold accountable their own, but Thomas remains untouched. He comes to his senses continuing on his reading tour to great acclaim, but without Brinnin who resigns from academia and poetry. In the wake of the annihilation, in exchange for his sacrifice, Brinnin has an epiphany: his hero has clay feet; soon enough he will be smashed by carnal mortality. The short-lived time Brinnin spent with Thomas was priceless, life changing. He gratefully carries away the sage lessons learned.
The film shot in black and white reflects the time period and echos the cultural stasis and dark undercurrents of repression and hypocrisy prevalent amongst academic social circles. The tone is bleak, shadowed, cinematically striking. It is appropriate to show the entrenched conservatism and competitive political machinations between Brinnin’s handler, Jack, and the stuffy academic boards Brinnin must deal with. The transference of the settings from New York City to the wilderness where Brinnin eventually takes Thomas to remove him from the triggers of his own infamy are beautifully contrasted.
The cinematography is spare. The shots of the lake where Thomas is most real provide the grey tones to heighten that the human heart is neither all darkness, nor all light. Thomas and Brinnin are not at fault, however much the cultural institutions may construe they are. But like all humans outside the safe structure of hypocritical institutions and intellectual walls, Thomas and Brinnin are weak and morally fallible: they suffer, spill emotion, gush pain. It is this Thomas teaches Brinnin to accept in himself. It is this which academia will never acknowledge because the notion of humanity’s transcendence through fallibility is contrary to its mission. Thus, it is best that Brinnin has been freed from its fallacious and artificial constructs that attempt to teach about life, but which imbue false realities.
Filmmaker Goddard has constructed a layered film that is clear and intentionally muted. It strikes at themes found in Thomas’ poetry, most clearly in the lines that Thomas reads to the Yale officials and elsewhere. The cinematic elements richly cohere and Guff Rhys’ original music intones notes of beauty and haunting lyricism. Selecting various solo instrumentation to echo the characters of Thomas and Brinnin in profound performances by Celyn Jones and Elijah Wood (another beautifully nuanced portrayal), is an excellent choice. The music and cinematography bring incisive power to the themes. In black and white, we see the dying of Thomas’ light.