Tread softly because you tread on our dreams
A few months ago I saw a trailer for “Set Fire to the Stars” and whilst it didn’t look like it would be a classic, it still intrigued me, so when I got the unexpected opportunity to watch it whilst on holiday in Norway (I’m still in Norway at the time of writing, awaiting my flight from Oslo to Tromso), I had to jump on it.
I had no idea what to expect heading into the film as I knew nothing of the subject matter and poetry is something that simply doesn’t interest me. In that sense I get the feeling that this film will not be a hit with those who weren’t alive during the time period, or indeed people who aren’t interested in poetry.
This feels very much like a passion project and those can end to be the type of film I hate, pretentious nonsense that alienates itself from the mainstream. We’ll see.
John Brinnin (Wood), a professor in poetry, has invited the acclaimed poet Dylan Thomas (Jones) to America for a spoken tour. Whilst everyone is excited, they are also very cautious as Thomas has a reputation for being awkward and hell-raising.
John’s initial hero worship disappears almost as quickly as Dylan downs his first drink, and he soon realises that reputations are sometimes deserved. After being thrown out of their hotel because of Dylan’s raucous behaviour, and Dylan offending the heads of Yale University with crude limericks. Despite the tour going well, John decides that it’s time to take Dylan out of New York as it’s having a negative effect on his well being.
Dylan meanwhile is actively trying to ignore a letter from his wife and this doesn’t help with the situation. Meanwhile, John is coming under increasing pressure from his boss (Mackintosh) and this leads to an even more frail relationship between him and Dylan.
Poetic or Pretentious?
I would say it very much falls in the pretentious category here as it approaches it’s presentation as if everyone who watches the film knows who Dylan Thomas was in advance. The film takes place in 1950, a full 34 years before I was born and in the 31 years since, I had never heard of Dylan Thomas before this film, and yet the film just seems to jump in with the expectation that it’s audience are only watching because they know who he is.
Right from that expectation they have almost alienated a lot of the potential audience as some of the most popular films based on either real people or previously established canon (such as the Marvel Universe) don’t assume that those watching the films know anything about the characters going into it. For example, the film “Bronson” brings you right into the world of the life of Charles Bronson, and it doesn’t just make that assumption that you already know who he is, and this allows more freedom to tell the story of him, whereas in “Set Fire to the Stars”, you are just told that this poet was critically acclaimed and you have to take their word for it.
That being said, the character of Dylan Thomas is so wonderfully multi-dimensional and arguably the least predictable protagonist that I have reviewed so far on this site. You never know what you’re going to get with him as one minute he is being socially awkward, then moving onto outright paranoia and then anger. Celyn Jones has captured the performances of a social pariah perfectly, and gets of a trouble genius perfect.
The strangest thing about the character of Dylan Thomas is that looking at the picture of the man in real life, he looks more like Elijah Wood than Celyn Jones.
Realistically the only thing that I didn’t like about the film is the pretentious nature with which they present Dylan Thomas. Visually it is unique, with large set pieces and this is accompanied by a soundtrack that is used effectively, yet is very chaotic at times, seemingly like Thomas himself. Again, I had never heard of the man before this film but if he was anything like how the film presents him then he was a pain in the arse.
Right from the off you are bombarded with loud and unforgiving jazz music. The soundtrack to “Set Fire to the Stars” is fantastic and the opening montage of Elijah Wood’s character frantically trying to remember the running order of the tour, accompanied by the chaotic jazz, is just wonderful. It enlightens all of the senses and brings you into the world.
The film ends with all of the characters in the film reading out a poem, a line or two each, and it’s beautifully done and rounds off a film that whilst never being fully entertaining, is almost perfect in terms of style and presentation.
“Set Fire to the Stars” is probably the closest that I will ever come to giving a film the approval stamp without actually doing it. Whilst generally well executed, the pretentious nature of it lost me somewhat and because of this is became somewhat less enjoyable.
That being said, if you can get past the pretentious overtones then you’ll probably enjoy the film. The cast, especially Celyn Jones, all do a masterclass in character portrayal. However, it takes more than great acting to make a good film.
If you’re a fan of Dylan Thomas’ work then I think you’ll love this film. If you’re not a fan however, Iget the feeling that you will struggle to find any true meaning or feeling with film, and whilst it is largely enjoyable, I can’t give it the approval stamp for this reason.