Dylan Thomas knew the transcendent power of great art: “The world is never the same,” he famously said, “once a good poem has been added to it.” The world, it has to be said, does not look terribly different after viewing “Set Fire to the Stars,” a stylized biopic covering the alcoholic poet’s first American tour in 1950. Shot in silky black-and-white, Andy Goddard’s debut feature is an easy, elegant diversion — a kind of “My Week With Dylan” exercise, agreeably headlined by Elijah Wood as John Brinnin, the buttoned-up Harvard grad swiftly overwhelmed by the Welsh hellraiser. Yet its appreciation of Thomas’ work remains superficial, while the polished filmmaking never quite finds its own poetry. Perhaps the most universally distributable of this year’s Edinburgh world premieres, “Stars” should twinkle only modestly in select arthouses.
Arriving six years after John Maybury’s “The Edge of Love” — a portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man romance that also, coincidentally enough, preemed at the Scottish fest — “Set Fire to the Stars” marks the second tactful, tasteful Thomas study that is less than equal to its subject’s notoriously fiery recklessness. Still, this one at least comes with a certain dying-of-the-light urgency, finding the poet just three years shy of his early grave. (He’s 35, but as played in roaring, robust fashion by co-scribe Celyn Jones, he seems far more saltily weathered than that.) It’s all too easy to forget just how young Thomas was. Indeed, his centenary is only approaching on Oct. 27 this year, a date that enterprising distributors would do well to circle in red.
As large a presence as he is, however, Thomas takes a cantankerous passenger seat in the narrative next to Brinnin, the young poet and admirer responsible for drawing the Welshman out to the States in the first place. Brinnin’s difficult relationship with Thomas appears to have played a significant role in his own subsequent retirement from poetry: “I’m as well known as I deserve to be,” the film quotes him as saying at its close. Their mutually destructive clash of wills and egos could have made for scarring, exhilarating drama. Instead, Goddard (a well-regarded TV helmer whose credits include several episodes of “Downton Abbey”) keeps the proceedings breezy with a hint of distinguished melancholy: A farce-tinged opening act, in which Brinning tries and fails to turn his wild ward against the Big Apple’s hedonistic delights, calls to mind nothing so much as “Scent of a Woman.”
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The film takes a more eccentric turn as the action relocates to rural Connecticut, where Brinnin stows Thomas away in a desperate attempt at detoxification ahead of the poet’s next scheduled speaking engagement. There, the boozy, Beat-aspiring intervention of a local literary couple (played by Kevin Eldon and Shirley Henderson, the latter in her most impishly neurotic form) briefly pulls the film into Burroughs-lite territory before a more sentimental streak kicks in. Even at its most disheveled, however, “Stars” retains a certain disciplined coziness. The deranged deterioration of Thomas’ psyche is successfully channeled in only one genuinely unnerving scene: a hallucinated, reproachful monologue from his wife Caitlin, startlingly played by Kelly Reilly with enough concentrated erotic fury to steal the entire picture in a matter of minutes.
Tech credits are of a uniformly high, handsome standard, with Chris Seager’s digital monochrome lensing exuding veritable patent-leather gloss in the nighttime scenes, though the consistent crispness of the image isn’t always conducive to atmosphere. Edward Thomas’ production design and Francisco Rodriguez-Weil’s rather covetable costumes thankfully resist over-instructive period detailing. Recruiting Gruff Rhys, frontman of the Welsh alternative rock band Super Furry Animals, to compose the score feels like it should have been a bolder creative gambit than its turns out to be, though his jazz-inflected compositions are pretty enough. Less successful are the Rhys-penned original songs scattered across the soundtrack, which can’t help but sound comparatively banal in a film heavy on readings of Dylan Thomas’ most lyrical verses.