The last days, drinks, and deliriums of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas get yet another airing in Steven Bernstein’s “Dominion,” a rather slipshod addition to Thomas’ screen canon, enlivened, if that’s the word, by a ranting, scotch-spittle-flecked Rhys Ifans in the central role.
It’s clear why Ifans (as well as Rodrigo Santoro as an improbable, Shakespeare-quoting, tango-dancing barman) and executive producer John Malkovich playing Thomas’ wolfishly amoral New York doctor, would jump at so verbose and monologue-heavy a script. It’s less clear why Bernstein would be inspired to write it, when not only does it add little new to the Thomas story, it actively avoids addressing the more intriguing theories about his death — such as that it may not have been directly due to alcohol after all. Instead cinematographer-turned-writer-director Bernstein, in his first film since his 2013 helming debut “Decoding Annie Parker,” doesn’t just print the legend, he invests it with further levels of swaggering, swigging mythology, that sadly add up to the impression that whatever else Thomas was — genius, charlatan, rogue — he was also a crashing bore.
Jumping around in chronology and using various glitchy cinematic techniques to portray Thomas’ different phases of life and states of mind, “Dominion” mostly takes place in black and white, during the fateful bender that Thomas himself enshrined as the reason he went comatose into the good night a few days later, when he claimed he had broken a record by drinking 18 straight whiskies. This outlandish assertion, which has been contradicted by witnesses, forms the guiding structure of Bernstein’s film, as Thomas (Ifans) takes to “naming” each one of his drinks. Number one is “Innocence,” two is “Enthusiasm,” three is “Hope,” four “Recalcitrance” and so on, each providing a prompt for a new phase of reminiscing, hallucinating, or grandiloquent speechifying to the patrons of New York’s White Horse Tavern.
Flashbacks to his time in Wales with equally bonkers wife Caitlin (Romola Garai) are in antiqued color. Additional flash-further-backs, to a boy running through a snowy Welsh woodland give us some clue as to which work Bernstein will choose to send the writer of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” out on. Those brief sequences are marred, however, by some low-grade filmmaking when what should be a gliding overhead judders, while the black-and-white New York exteriors are also unconvincing, with characters haloed against blurred backgrounds, as in a hasty PhotoShop job.
As Thomas counts up the shot glasses, friends and acolytes buzz around in the background. His much abused biographer Brinnin (unlikely MVP Tony Hale, turning in a touchingly human performance amid so much bluster) is frustrated with Thomas’ cavalier treatment of his manuscript, but also worried about the state of the American tour he’d organized, as well as of Thomas’ health. To that end, he has meetings with snooty physician Dr. Felton (Malkovich) for whom wry amusement seems to pass for a bedside manner.
Meanwhile, the shortchanged womenfolk of Thomas’ life are shortchanged once again, with Garai mostly either appearing as a frowsy hallucination in a milkmaid-style dress, or as a transatlantic scold reading her increasingly agitated letters to her neglectful husband aloud as … her … pen … stabs … out … the … words. Still, she fares better than poor Zosia Mamet as the starstruck Vassar girl determined to get Thomas to his reading on time.
More crucially, for a film about a famous poet, “Dominion” is curiously uninterested in the poetry. The extracts we do hear, declaimed by Ifans in a decent approximation of Thomas’ florid (and now rather unfashionable) rhetorical style, are greatest-hits snippets, there not so much for their meaning or beauty as to have Ifans practice his round vowels while crowds of 1950s ladies swoon in packed lecture theaters.
As Thomas is rounding on drinks 16 through 18, Bernstein suddenly deploys the barman Carlos (Santoro) as a sort of Mephisto character, designed to puncture Thomas’ self-mythologizing tendencies. But it’s too little, too unbelievable, and too late. The latest in a long, long line of aggrandizing portraits of Great Men bedeviled (but also somehow ennobled, these biopics coyly suggest) by even greater demons, Bernstein’s Thomas is ultimately just another of those raving, reeking bar-stool philosophers we’ve all met/been at some point: occasionally amusing but mostly just self-pitying, and stinking drunk.