There’s a brief moment that struck me half way through Set Fire to the Stars when Celyn Jones playing Dylan Thomas tips drunkenly asleep onto the shoulder of exasperated host John Malcolm Brinnin. Played by Elijah Wood, Brinnin pushes him back but holds onto him a little longer than strictly necessary as his expression melts from irritation to brotherly love in a heartbeat.
The moment sums up their relationship but its also when I realised how perfectly cast Elijah Wood is as the role requires an actor capable of carrying significant internal anguish whilst still emanating kindness and warmth. Perhaps its something of a trademark now after carrying the one ring across Middle Earth but he pulls it off beautifully.
And alongside Wood, what a terrific cast director Andy Goddard has assembled around him for his first feature. Celyn Jones was clearly born to play Wales most famous export -delivering a mesmerising sometimes thrilling performance full of inebriated passion, a lust for life with pain and humour in equal measure. Shirley Henderson arrives half way through, perhaps only for ten minutes but steals all her scenes, particularly in her memorable rendition of a fireside ghost story.
The film explores the period in the early 1950’s when academic and poet Brinnin invited Dylan Thomas across the pond to tour the States. His experience of playing host whilst enduring Dylan’s boisterous and unhealthy antics have already been immortalised in various forms but now gets a cinematic makeover in Set Fire to the Stars, the title taken from the last line of Thomas’ poem Love in the Asylum.
And a suitably poetic update it is, this is an elegant production beautifully shot in black and white, remarkably it turns out on location on this side of the pond in and around Swansea bolstered by a few old fashioned effects shots of a 1950’s New York skyline. Much of the film looks like and plays out like a wry film-noir with snowbound New York streets seen through windows - I was reminded just for brief moments of the atmosphere of Its a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner.
Perhaps that’s praise too much but continuing the noir-ish feel Steve Mackintosh is in fine form as Jack, a Yale academic who initially appears to helpfully back Brinnin’s tour plans but soon develops into something of a mildly sinister nemesis full of arrogance and control.
It all works, this mash up of both old and modern fashioned cinematic conventions keeps the eye and mind engaged whilst two great real life characters take chunks out of each other in what is paradoxically a mutually beneficial and destructive relationship. Its an unlikely 'bromance' for want of a better expression but luckily the better expressions are all up there on the screen as the script delivers both great dialogue and witty wordplay particularly from Celyn Jones channeling both Dylan Thomas’ wounded inner child and THAT voice with THOSE words.
Screening again Tuesday 24th June 8.50pm Odeon, Lothian Road.
Special related event - 'Hero Hangout: Elijah Wood' in conversation at The Lyceum Theatre Wednesday 25th June 8.30pm.