Set Fire To The Stars

(2014 movie)

If you haven’t seen it:

Just going by the title, you might assume that Set Fire to the Stars is a science-fiction movie.  You might also be thinking Stupid film-makers, don’t they know that the stars are already on fire?  It’s their raison d’être goddammit!”  You would be wrong to think that (except for the bit about the stars already being on fire, that bit is true).

No, it is not a science-fiction movie, it is actually a well crafted and accessible little art house movie. It tells the story of the famous Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s first trip to America (and the phrase “set fire to the stars” actually comes from Dylan’s poem Love In The Asylum).

Beautifully filmed in black and white to evoke the 1950s, the period in which it is set, this is a pleasure to look at and will be enjoyed by most people who have an interest in Dylan Thomas or indeed by anyone (and I was in this category myself) who only has a vague idea who he was but would like to know a little more.

Dylan Thomas was, we are told, a notorious drinker and hell-raiser, and his antics test the management skills and the patience of the young man (played by Elijah Wood, who, thirteen years after The Lord of The Rings, somehow still looks like a teenager) assigned to look after him.

Dylan Thomas was a very charismatic man, and he is fun to watch on the screen.  There are some serious themes in the movie, but overall the tone is quite light. This makes for an enjoyable film that leaves you thinking about it afterwards.

 

If you have seen it:
Scroll down past the trailer for more.

SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.

Plot:

The movie begins with poetry professor John Brinnin persuading his superiors to allow him to arrange for the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to travel to America and embark on a speaking tour of universities and art centres.

As soon as Dylan arrives, it becomes apparent that his reputation as a drinker and hell-raiser is not (as John had hoped) an exaggeration, but is in fact well deserved.

After a night of heavy drinking in Manhattan Dylan collapses and John calls a doctor, who tells him that “New York is killing him”.  John resolves to save Dylan from himself, and drives him to his parents’ holiday home, a cabin in the woods, where they will stay for the next few days while waiting for Dylan’s next performance at Yale university.

Despite the remote location, Dylan still manages to find a bar and gets drunk. He also gets up to some other mischief including stealing a rowing boat, and possibly (it is implied but not actually shown) seducing a married friend of John’s who pays a visit.

After some ups and downs, Dylan and John eventually seem to be beginning to bond, but on the night before the big reading at Yale, Dylan drinks heavily again.  The next morning it looks as though he will be unable to perform, and John is furious.

Despite Dylan’s condition though, the Yale reading goes well.  However, at dinner afterwards, Dylan takes a dislike to the stuffy academics, and is deliberately offensive.

It looks as though the whole tour is going to be a disaster, when Dylan is reinvigorated by a letter from his wife (which he has had for some time but has been putting off reading).

John and Dylan part company as Dylan goes off to Harvard.

 

Steve Sunday Says:

One of the central messages of Set Fire to the Stars is that you should never meet your heroes.

I met my hero once and it was a disaster.

“Who was your hero?” I hear you ask.

Well, I would like to be able to tell you that it was somebody who makes me seem sophisticated – a modern day equivalent of Dylan Thomas if you like, but I am afraid to say it was the the 1970s’ Dr Who actor Tom Baker.  What can I tell you?  I was a Dr Who fan. Anyway, I met him at a book-signing he was doing at the Cheltenham Literary Festival (actually that bit does make me sound a little sophisticated after all – well done Steve!).  As I moved towards the front of the queue to meet him I realised I could think of absolutely nothing to say to him that did not make me seem ridiculous.  So when I finally got to the front I said nothing, and he just signed my book and in near silence and we both felt a little uncomfortable.  I thought perhaps Tom might not have noticed my terror, but when I got home and read his autobiography, I realised that was not the case.  There was a passage in the book where describes how Dr Who fans are forever falling into stunned silence around him.  He described my behaviour perfectly. Bugger!

Anyway, the point I am labouring is that I can identify with Brinnin’s desire to get close to someone who inspired him, and with his frustration when things do not go the way he planned.

I found Dylan Thomas to be a very interesting character in Set Fire to the Stars; I really enjoyed watching him on screen and it made me want to find out more about him. It would have been easy for the writers to trot out the standard “tortured genius battling with his demons” routine but I think they managed to avoid that trap; Dylan felt like a real person to me.

I even enjoyed the poetry, and that is not a sentence I have ever written before!

 

Trivia Trish Says:

  • The film is based on the book Dylan Thomas in America by John Brinnen.
  • It was filmed entirely on location in Swansea, Wales. New York city street scenes were created using fake fire hydrants.
  • It took just 18 days to shoot.
  • The screenplay was written by the director Andy Goddard and Celyn Jones (who played Dylan Thomas).

 

Paul the Poet says:

In 1933 Dylan Thomas was challenged by a friend to write a poem about immortality.  The result was And Death Shall have no Dominion.  The title of the poem comes from a Bible verse (Paul’s letter to the Romans).

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead man naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

 

In the original quote (“Death hath no more dominion”) St Paul was telling his readers that they could have eternal life through Jesus.  Dylan Thomas however, was not a Christian, and he reappropriated the phrase and gave it his own meaning.  Notice how he dropped the word “more”, because Dylan believed that death was not the end, and never had been.

In the first verse he says that the dead will be made whole again at the end of time.

In the second verse Dylan takes the reader to a graveyard on the sea floor and talks about the souls of brave sailors who drowned. Unicorns are referred to because they often symbolize goodness – the juxtaposition of unicorn and evil is striking.

In the final verse Dylan says that the dead are no longer troubled by the material world, and death is powerless in the face of purity and hope.

 

Main Cast and Crew:

Elijah Wood as John M. Brinnin
Celyn Jones as Dylan Thomas
Steven Mackintosh as Jack
Shirley Henderson as Shirley
Kevin Eldon as Stanley

Director: Andy Goddard

 

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