'Set Fire to the Stars': Edinburgh Review

Dylan Thomas drama goes a bit too gentle into that good night.

Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones star in Andy Goddard's feature debut based on an episode in the life of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, premiering in competition at the Scottish festival.

A steady, austere treatment of a notoriously and riotously rambunctious subject, Set Fire to the Stars takes a non-incendiary, safe-hands approach to potentially combustible material. Dramatizing the personal and professional relationship between superstar poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) and his tour-agent John Brinnin over a few weeks in 1950, this big-screen directorial debut by TV veteran Andy Goddard (five episodes of Downton Abbey) arrives in timely fashion just months before Thomas's centenary in October. This anniversary, and the presence of co-producer Elijah Wood in the central role of Brinnin, should ensure a measure of festival play following its Edinburgh bow, and possibly even theatrical play in territories where Dylan remains a revered literary figure.

Shot in monochrome digital by cinematographer Chris Seager, who like Goddard has many small-screen credits to his name, the film has a consistently classy, period-appropriate look boosted by Edward Thomas' unobtrusively attentive production design and a seamless use of Welsh locales convincingly doubling as New England. The bulk of the action unfolds in and around a rural cabin where Brinnin, a straight-laced professor of poetry and creative writing, tries to ensure Thomas is ready for his next speaking engagement on an ambitious 40-date tour of the U.S.

The focus is firmly on the central pair, a study in opposites on many levels -- physically, the hulking Thomas and the mannequin-like Brinnin make for an amusingly mismatched, Laurel-and-Hardy-esque duo. While Thomas -- whose party-hearty, proto-Beat antics have earned him a colorful reputation on both sides of the Atlantic -- is invariably the center of narrative attention, this is at heart Brinnin's tale. And it's a very familiar one: the story of how a buttoned-down academic gradually unbends thanks to extended, hazardous proximity to a genuinely unbridled, uninhibited force of nature -- in this instance a kind of Celtic Caliban, hailing from a land of "chest-thumping Neanderthals."

And while the shaggy-haired, bulbous-faced Thomas could at a certain distance be perhaps mistaken for a Hobbit, Wood has never appeared so archly angular on screen: hawkish of nose and sharp of chin, kitted out in form-fitting, fogey-ish duds that make him look like a bow-tied throwback to Great Gatsby days. Celyn Jones -- who co-wrote the screenplay with Goddard -- resists flashy excess in this showcase role, unfussily capturing the ursine charisma of an unruly but irresistibly engaging "man-child."

This rollercoaster, platonic bromance exerts a steady appeal, but it's telling that perhaps the most effective single sequence comes when the twosome share the spotlight with a couple of booze-quaffing visitors: Stanley Hyman (Kevin Eldon) and his wife Shirley (Shirley Henderson), the latter better known under her maiden name and nom-de-plume Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House, The Lottery, etc). An extended late-night storytelling session involving the quartet is one of few moments where genuine well-springs of the creative process are glimpsed -- otherwise the film talks a lot about artistic processes but ultimately yields little fresh insight. Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys' orchestral soundtrack -- deployed with unfashionable but profitable restraint -- provides welcome counterpoint to and respite from the verbiage, though as with so much else in Set Fire to the Stars it's fundamentally conventional work.

The closest the film comes to capturing the poet's dangerous edge is a bosky fantasy sequence at the end in which Thomas imagines a visitation from his sensuous wife Caitlin (Kelly Reilly) -- a character who had much more to do in the last Thomas-inspired feature, John Maybury's lukewarm The Edge of Love (2008). But even here the tasteful, black-and-white, standard-ratio, digital imagery is an odd fit for a boundary-busting 'boyo' whose inner life would surely be a wild riot of widescreen, technicolor excess.

Production company: Mad as Birds
Cast: Elijah Wood, Celyn Jones, Steven Mackintosh, Shirley Henderson, Kevin Eldon, Kelly Reilly
Director: Andy Goddard
Screenwriters: Andy Goddard, Celyn Jones
Producer: A.J.Riach, Andy Evans
Executive producer: Steve Clark-Hall
Cinematographer: Chris Seager
Production designer: Edward Thomas
Costume designer: Francisco Rodriguez-Weil
Editor: Mike Jones
Composer: Gruff Rhys
Sales: The Works, London
No Rating, 96 minutes