Thursday, 26 March 2015

Set Fire to the Stars

Directed by Andy Goddard (Downton Abbey) and out now on Blu-Ray and DVD comes Set Fire to the Stars, a film that tells the true story of renowned poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) and his first tour of America, with John Malcolm Brinnin (Elijah Wood) tasked to keep his literary idol, the alcoholic party animal that he is, under control. After one particularly wild night, John drives Dylan out to his old cabin in the middle of nowhere to calm him down. But in doing this he learns a lot about who is hero really is, and a lot about himself too. We’ve all read, or at least heard, Thomas’ poetry. But not everyone knows the sort of man he was. Behind most geniuses lies a troubled soul, and Dylan Thomas is certainly a prime example of this.


Shot in only 18 days in Wales on a minuscule budget, without the right people behind it Set Fire to the Stars could’ve been a disaster. The film was written by director Goddard and star Jones, drawing from Brinnin’s memoir ‘Dylan Thomas in America’. The script is phenomenal. Like most independent biographical films, this is a dialogue driven piece. Don’t expect explosions, car chases or any edge-of-your-seat action. Save for a few brief booze-fuelled punch-ups, Set Fire to the Stars is all about the dialogue. Taking place mostly inside a few locations such as the cabin, diners and hotel rooms, the film feels like theatre. Numerous critics have compared it to cult classic ‘Withnail & I’, and one can understand where this comparison comes from. But don’t go in expecting it to be all that similar. Sure, it shares certain elements, but Set Fire to the Stars stands on its own two feet without comparisons.


Another wonderful element of this film is the breath-taking cinematography by Chris Seager (who has also worked on HBO’s Game of Thrones). Following the success of recent contemporary black & white films like ‘Nebraska’, the colourless cinematography on display here is truly a sight to behold. Beauty lies within every single frame. There are few films that I have said this about, but this is the best example I’ve encountered yet – you could take any frame from this film and put it on your wall. Every shot is a work of art. Take those visuals and add a touch of Gruff Rhys’ superb score and prepare to be transported back to 1950’s America.

Elijah Wood continues his run of independent film performances here, after the brilliant ‘Maniac’ and ‘Grand Piano’. Like Channing Tatum in ‘Foxcatcher’, Elijah plays the role with a quiet and understated brilliance and hasn’t been getting nearly enough praise for it. Perhaps people have become too accustomed to seeing him in the Lord of the Rings saga, and still wrongly see him as Frodo. Or perhaps, like Tatum in ‘Foxcatcher’, this is due to the other performance in the film. Understandable really, as Celyn Jones displays phenomenal talent in the role of Dylan Thomas, and the film arguably belongs to him. I was lucky enough to meet Jones after a special screening of the film recently, and he spoke of ‘finding the man in the monster and the monster in the man’ with his performance. Even at Dylan’s nastiest and most careless, you can see his heart and his vulnerability. This is something that not any actor could’ve done. After this performance, wrongly snubbed during awards season, expect to be seeing a lot more of Jones in the coming years. Enter a brilliant supporting cast including Kelly Reilly, Steven Mackintosh, Shirley Henderson & Kevin Eldon and you have a terrific set of performances.


In conclusion, this is old-school film-making and a breath of fresh air for cinema. Beautiful, moving, dark, inspiring, funny, sad. All of these words, and more, could be used to describe Set Fire to the Stars. Upon speaking to one of the producers, Andy Evans, at the aforementioned special screening, he spoke of the film’s limitations regarding marketing. He said that the film finding a large audience is relying heavily on word of mouth, and hopes that the film has a long after-life as one of those that people will still be recommending to each other years down the line. I know I will. Watch it, tell your friends to watch it, do your bit for independent cinema and find an audience for a film that truly deserves one. To come full circle, I started this review by saying that with the budget, time and setting restrictions facing the crew, Set Fire to the Stars could’ve been a disaster. It turned out to be the opposite. Set Fire to the Stars is a perfect film, and is destined for classic status.

Set Fire to the Stars gets 5/5. Set fire to them.

★★★★★

Sam Love


Set Fire to the Stars at CeX


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