It puts us right in the middle. A young poet and professor at the prestige university (Elijah Wood) in front of the jury of big-headed academia proposes to invite one of the most controversial and the greatest poet of our times, Dylan Thomas. The jury shakes their head but Elijah promises to take care of him and make sure Dylan doesn’t show up drunk in public places. They say yes and the next scene we see is Dylan vomiting in front of some less-than-fancy bar. Hmmm…
First of all, it has to be said that Set Fire to the Stars has a great potential to be a great film and there are elements that are so excellent about it that result in inconsistency of a sort. Let’s take directing. Because of the script, I presume, the film comes out as chaotic, too telling and expository, but the shots are absolutely stunning. The film is hypnotising just to look at and maybe it would be better if the dialogue was off and the only music we heard was early 20s swing. Set Fire to the Stars is a glimmering black and white postcard, precious and unique. And just for the way it looks it could be re-watched million times.
The acting can be excellent too. Although Elijah Wood is good and Celyn Jones does give us a persuasive portrayal of an ingenious drunk Thomas, it is Shirley Henderson, who completely steals the film. She appears for, I don’t know, twenty minutes of the film, and she is absolutely amazing. The way she recites the horror story is worth an Oscar nomination. Watching her felt like being a child taken on a imaginary journey into the most fantastic land. The film could be just about her.
And this is where the major problem lies with Set Fire to the Stars. The character of John portrayed by Wood isn’t even half as interesting as every other character in the film and I couldn’t stop thinking that I’d rather see anyone else as the main hero but him. He is suppose to be our guide in the over-romanticed world of crazy poets, but it’s much easier to identify with these crazy poets than him, simply because, he comes out as bleak and kind of boring. The film fails to put enough attention on anyone for us to really follow it and most of the time we feel the distance which kills the atmosphere SFTTS is trying to create (the atmosphere that every single film about poets of the early 20th century is trying to create, the over-romanticised hipsterism…). And here lies another problem- SFTTS isn’t any different from Kill Your Darlings, On the Road and all of the beat generation movies. Actually, it’s much worse. We hardly hear Thomas poetry, we hardly see him writing and because of that, we can’t really get what the whole fuss is about. Usually, bios like that provoke in me the emotions of ‘I’ll just pack and go hitchhiking in America while only eating grass and writing the sequel to Ulysses’, but here, I felt nothing. I felt nothing towards this film apart from the admiration to the beautiful shots. And this is just not good enough.
Set Fire to the Stars has it all and yet, it fails to be this inspiring, mind-blowing biography it tries to be. I think the problem doesn’t lie in separate elements but rather in the way they were put together. Not enough of this here, too much of that there. But it looks beautiful and if you’re a fan of Dylan Thomas, maybe this is a film that could reveal some new, interesting things about him. But I don’t know that.