It probably wasn’t literally New York City that killed Dylan Thomas. If anything, Dylan Thomas killed Dylan Thomas with his wild, inebriated lifestyle. But I suppose that isn’t nearly as romantic. So Andy Goddard’s Set Fire to the Stars, a loose re-telling of Thomas’ first American tour shepherded by John M. Brinnin (Elijah Wood), spends the first third of its run-time indulging in the fantasy that it was New York what killed the poet. “We have to get him ready for America,” Brinnin mutters to himself as he ferries the inebriated Thomas (Celyn Jones) from hotel room to hotel room. “New York is killing him,” a dour doctor intones after a check-up. Mercifully, after the first twenty to thirty minutes Goddard drops these fatalistic portents and the film is able to evolve into a truly engaging picture about two lonely, confused men seeking solace in art and in each other.
The film that kept coming to my mind as I reflected on Set Fire to the Stars was Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I (1987), another story about boozed-up artists taking a countryside sojourn. In fact, Set Fire to the Stars could almost be a (admittedly inferior) companion piece. But in the place of Robinson’s dark humor comes an almost Mike Leigh-an emotional intensity. The film is at its best when it allows its actors breathing room to truly explore their inner pathos. Three scenes in particular spring to mind: a stunning monologue where Brinnin reflects on the time he was goaded into killing a mouse as a child; a confrontation on a boat in the middle of a lake where Thomas tells Brinnin to kiss him; and the emotional highlight of the film, a fantastical sequence where the specter of Thomas’ wife appears and recites a letter written to him while throttling him. As this last scene faded out, I remember looking down and seeing my hand smashed over my gaping mouth in amazement. It’s almost criminal that Set Fire to the Stars was given such a paltry release: there is no doubt in my mind that if more people had seen it, this short passage would have netted two Oscar nominations.
Set Fire to the Stars may be thematically uneven, but the aforementioned performances and Chris Seager’s cinematography more than make up for it. Seager’s cinematography is particularly notable: it’s the rare modern movie that is truly shot for 2.35 : 1 Widescreen and not just in 2.35 : 1 Widescreen. The clipped tops and bottoms of the screen almost transform the images into the visual equivalent of horizontal lines of poetry text. There might be much ado about Seager and Goddard’s use of black-and-white cinematography (and kudos must be given for not succumbing to that most tiresome of modern B&W clichés: the momentary splash of color), but it is the use of widescreen that left the greatest impression.