Thursday 9 March 2017

A Poet In New York

There was something of a resurgence of interest in the great Dylan Thomas a few years ago, thanks in part to 2014 being the centenary of the so-called ‘rockstar’ poet’s birth. There were multiple screen adaptations of his seminal play-for-voices Under Milk Wood and an unforgettably passionate semi-biographical film, Set Fire To The Stars, starring Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones. But 2014 also brought a small-screen BBC production, created purely to celebrate the centenary, about Dylan’s final days.

First of all, it seemed an unusual choice to celebrate Thomas’ centenary with a rather bleak tale of the broken man he became who drank himself to death in 1953. The BBC could’ve celebrated his life in a far lighter way, surely…And secondly, it’s either a stunningly unpredictable coincidence or a very daft decision on somebody’s part that this film covers almost the exact same ground that the far superior Set Fire To The Stars did in the very same release year.

A Poet In New York follows the ageing, drunken and overweight Dylan Thomas (Tom Hollander) on one of his reading tours of America, while his friend and ipso-facto tour manager John Malcolm Brinnin (Ewan Bremner) keeps an eye on him. Unlike the eerily similar Set Fire To The Stars, A Poet in New York has a greater focus on Dylan’s home life – told through effective flashbacks, shot on location in his hometown of Laugharne. These flashbacks make something of a villain of Dylan’s unhinged wife Caitlin (Essie Davis) but do create a greater understanding of the poet’s home troubles. That said, the film’s short runtime of 75 minutes doesn’t allow for a huge amount of detail. Characters aren’t developed enough here, to the point that big scenes lack dramatic weight for anyone with a small knowledge of Dylan Thomas and the people around him.

To that end, A Poet In New York is best enjoyed as an epilogue to Set Fire To The Stars. Technically taking place after the events of that film, this BBC production acts as a quasi-sequel and watching Stars first means that, as a viewer, you will be far more familiar with the characters. Funnily enough, Celyn Jones – who starred in Stars as the poet – has a small role here, too. Films about a broken Dylan Thomas in America featuring Celyn Jones are like buses, right? You wait all day for one, then two come along at once…

Anyway, A Poet In New York isn’t bad. Tom Hollander rises to the challenge of playing such an iconic figure, even putting on two stone in weight for the role. He becomes Dylan, although – and I’m sorry to keep comparing – Celyn Jones was far better in Stars. Trainspotting’s loveable Ewan Bremner makes a brilliant Brinnin and Essie Davis is mesmerising as the terrifyingly volatile Caitlin Thomas. The film is brilliantly written thanks to period drama superstar Andrew Davies, and some pretty decent special effects (by television standards) create a living breathing 1950s New York City – although these effects can’t save the ending (featuring the ghost of Dylan climbing out of his lifeless body) from being just a little bit ridiculous.

By itself, A Poet In New York isn’t brilliant – especially if you’re unfamiliar with the great poet, for which you should be ashamed. Taken as an epilogue to Set Fire To The Stars, it works well, and for those with an interest in this story who haven’t seen that film, do yourself a favour and seek it out before you see this. But if you’ve got 75 minutes to kill and have only a basic interest in Thomas or this tale, you could do a lot worse.

A Poet In New York exists in the shadow of a far superior work, but is still worth a look.


Sam Love

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