Saturday, 8 November 2014

Late Dylan: "Set Fire to the Stars"

Our fascination with Dylan Thomas continues unabated. Set Fire to the Stars opens hot on the heels of a Tom Hollander-starring BBC dramatisation of the poet's final days (A Poet in New York), mere weeks after Michael Sheen's off-off-Broadway restaging of Under Milk Wood, and on the very same day that Christopher Nolan's Interstellar sets out to imprint the poet's work - and one line in particular - on the cinemagoing public's consciousness. This quietly impressive collaboration between director Andy Goddard and writer-star Celyn Jones holds to a stylised, black-and-white evocation of the America of 1950, and a depiction of the visiting Thomas as a big, intemperate, distractible child.

Scarcely more adult-seeming than the undergraduates he charms and alarms on his college reading tour, this Thomas (Jones) repeatedly dodges the responsibility symbolised by an unopened letter from his wife Caitlin, instead succumbing to tantrums and temptations endlessly catered to by an America that, in its post-War form, itself seems scarcely more than an outsized, excitable teenager, keenly plying its new friends with candy bars and comic books, wine and liberated women. "Do you need feeding?," asks the bored, flirty waitress at the diner Thomas's party stops at between engagements; at this juncture, for once, the subtext is served up more than a little over easy.

This is only half the story, however. Goodard and Jones' script at first views Thomas from the perspective of the poet's designated handler, the Manhattan poetry professor John Malcolm Brinnin, as incarnated here by a shrewdly cast Elijah Wood: in these early scenes, we get a jolt from realising this baby-faced Hobbit is by some distance the more mature of the two men on screen. Physically and ideologically, Brinnin and Thomas come to form a recognisable odd couple - one teaching creative writing as quantifiable theory, the other living it out in the wilds - and inevitably there will be a degree of give and take between the two. "Don't open a book, open a window," is Thomas's sage advice to his blocked cohort - words of wisdom that might as usefully be set before today's creative writing students as they are before Brinnin.

Indeed, while our sympathies vacillate between Jones's mewling manchild and Wood's bottled-up, buttoned-down protector-enabler, one of the film's constants is its delight in talk: Thomas's florid pronouncements and filthy limericks may catch the ear, but the heart of the tale is a partly autobiographical story Brinnin tells to a writer couple (Shirley Henderson and Kevin Eldon, two smart, leftfield choices) which may just explain quite why his feelings have, unlike those of his messier travelling companion, frozen over. In this, as elsewhere in Set Fire to the Stars, Goddard proves sensitive to fluctuations of mood and alert to the permeable boundary between lived experience and writerly imagination: the film this travelogue most recalls isn't Walter Salles' petrifyingly glossy On the Road but 1991's modulated, melancholy, surprising The Hours and Times, which found equally odd couple John Lennon and Brian Epstein tilting at windmills around a similarly monochrome Spain.

When Caitlin's letter finally comes to be opened, as it must, it's typical of Goddard and Jones' creditably bold approach that the words aren't read off-screen in voiceover, as movie convention dictates; instead, the film sends on the ever-striking Kelly Reilly - the picture of a fiery colleen, even in black-and-white - to straddle her "crushed boy" in person, and for a good few minutes, we genuinely have no idea whether she intends to fuck him or finish him off. Imaginative to the last, such choices imbue Set Fire to the Stars with rather more integrity and authentic poetry than you might expect from a lowish-budget passion project such as this - the achievement becomes all the greater with the credit-scrawl revelation that a film seeking to conjure up the restless intellectual spirit of post-War America did so on locations in and around Swansea Bay.

Set Fire to the Stars is now playing in selected cinemas.

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