"Santa Barbara... New York... Columbia... Florida... Yale... Boston." These places are repeated over and over like a chant paired with the audible footsteps of a man we soon learn is New York poetry professor John Brinnin. Brinnin, played by Elijah Wood, recites the pronouns to himself before entering a room and using them as support in his petition to bring poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) overseas from Wales to embark on his first American tour.
In Set Fire to the Stars, Welsh director Andy Goddard breathes life into one of the most celebrated -- and ruthless -- poets of the twentieth century.
The storyline is simple -- a Welsh poet's first visit to the United States and the poetry professor who ushered him around -- and the film's execution is a beautiful visual spectacle.
From the moment that Set Fire to the Stars opens with its black and white hue, the audience is transported to a different time, enhanced by the set design and chemistry between the two leading men. Wood gives a solid performance, but there's no denying the tenacity of Jones in his portrayal of Thomas. In several scenes, there are moments when Jones is still and either stares deeply at Wood as he speaks or stares off at something only the mind of a poet can visualize. Those moments have such power, those stares such intensity, that you find yourself holding your breath until Jones blinks.
But it's not just long looks and intense stares. Goddard shines a figurative light on Thomas and his masterful words was by pairing his spoken word with a soft musical undertone. Throughout the film, there are times when Jones steps away and stares off in a way only he can. He speaks casually in response to something someone has said but his words sound more like structured prose and when harmonized with a piano and violin tune, they are elevated.
The film was shot in 18 days and filmed entirely in Wales ironically enough, despite the fact that the entire film is about Thomas' visit to America and the story takes place in New York and Connecticut. Luckily, a 1950s New York City and a country cabin in Fairfield were easy enough to recreate.
Set Fire to the Stars catalogs Thomas' time at the beginning of his first North American tour, from the moment he arrives in New York City and does a reading at a college to the moments after his recital at Yale University. Although some of the poet's interactions and outings during that first crucial week were recorded in history, the filmmakers had plenty of unrecorded time to play around with the character and his story.
"It was that sort of lost weekend element that excited us about what happened between the two at that time," says Goddard, who was present at the premiere and participated in a brief question and answer session after the screening. "There were enough things that really did happen, like Shirley Jackson and her husband did come around and they did do ghost stories and they did watch boxing and all those things did happen; but, there were enough gray areas where we felt we could fill the blanks."
Comparing Thomas and Brinnin to a boxer and his coach, the director goes on to say, "Thomas was almost like a boxer in training and Brinnin his trainer taking him away from his vices to build him up for the American tour."
Thomas is most famous for his poem "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," which is movingly bellowed by Jones in the film, but the title comes from one of his lesser-known pieces, "Love In The Asylum." At one point, various characters recite lines from the poem ending with Wood's Brinnin sighing: "I may without fail / Suffer the first vision that set fire to the stars."
The film is so gripping that without noticing, you'll be holding your breath until the final scene, finally exhaling with satisfaction. After all, like Brinnin comes to realize at the end of his time with Thomas, it's about feeling something, and Set Fire to the Stars will make you feel something.
"Set Fire to the Stars" had its international premiere during the Miami International Film Festival (MIFF). MIFF runs now until Sunday, March 15. Visit miamifilmfestival.com.
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