Watching a guy drink himself to death is never particularly fun and, in the case of a tortured artist, borders on cliche. Yet that was the fate of Dylan Thomas, the brilliant poet whose final days (and some of his earlier life) are documented by “A Poet in New York,” screenwriter Andrew Davies’ look into the demons that haunted Thomas until he succumbed at age 39. Tied to the centenary of the wordsmith’s birth, this BBC America presentation proves most notable for Tom Hollander’s brilliant performance, a showy, outsized role in an otherwise very small-scale film.
Thomas arrives in New York in 1953, wildly celebrated yet cash-strapped, banking on public appearances and a planned collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky to bail him out. “I love this fabulous, filthy city,” he tells the two admirers squiring him about, John (Ewen Bremner) and Liz (Phoebe Fox).
Still, that quickly segues to the poet kneeling in front of a trash can, repeatedly vomiting just minutes before going onstage. “I’m not well,” he says, exhibiting a pronounced gift for understatement, while proceeding to indulge in both women and drink, excesses fueled by the sycophants around him, even though he hadn’t added to his body of work in some time.
As one-note as those scenes become, Davies (“Little Dorrit,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary”) seeks to flesh them out by flashing back, over a period of more than 15 years, to Thomas’ life in Wales and his tumultuous relationship with his wife Caitlin (Essie Thomas) — someone, with apologies to U2, he can’t seem to live with or without.
Hollander certainly paid for his art, padding on 20-plus pounds to approximate Thomas’ pudgy veneer, which doesn’t detract from the hypnotic lilt in his voice while reading lines like, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
Yet as much as he inhabits the character, there’s only so much to be done with what amounts to a mini-biopic (the project runs a mere 75 minutes sans commercials, shorter by at least 10 than the average TV movie), consisting of the last few weeks of the poet’s life and select snapshots of past events. There are similar limits on the rock-star-like treatment he enjoyed in the swinging ’50s, an era whose libertine ways and corresponding hypocrisy have been pretty well ventilated of late elsewhere.
Given those attributes, “A Poet in New York” is constrained in both its ambitions and rewards. That said, viewed strictly in terms of the poetry of the words and power of Hollander’s portraiture, it’s not a bad way to commemorate, as Thomas put it, the dying of the light.