Gorgeous, evocative and well performed, "Set Fire to the Stars" recounts the week in 1950 when New York poetry professor John Brinnin (Elijah Wood) brought famed Welsh poet — and Brinnin's perhaps undeserving idol — Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) to America to perform in a university reading tour.
Although he's warned by his mentor, Jack (Steven Mackintosh), that taking a chance on the gifted if reckless Thomas could torpedo Brinnin's academic future, Brinnin earnestly asks: "How much trouble can one poet be?" Well, he's about find out — the hard way.
Thomas is a handful, a self-described "horrible little imp." Volatile, sloppy and hard-drinking, yet often irrepressibly charming, the grandiose Welshman takes Manhattan by storm, so much so that he's thrown out of his hotel. The increasingly cautious Brinnin then squires the health-challenged poet (Thomas would die three years later) up to rural Connecticut, where the two spend a few fraught days attempting to prepare for Thomas' all-important reading at Yale.
During this interlude, a boozy evening is spent spinning stories with "The Lottery" author Shirley Jackson (Shirley Henderson) and her husband, Stanley (Kevin Eldon). It's an extended, offbeat sequence that exemplifies the film's many stirring forays into theatricality.
As for how things go at Yale, suffice to say Thomas knows how to clear a room.
The literate script by Jones and director Andy Goddard provides a vivid snapshot of the era, including the fussy world of academia and America's post-World War II zeitgeist. That Brinnin was a closeted gay man remains more implied here than explored, though it subtly infuses Wood's excellent, circumspect performance.
Chris Seager's black-and-white cinematography is superb, as are the film's production design, costumes and score. Thomas' singular poetry is sprinkled throughout to fine effect. (The movie's swoony title comes from a phrase in his poem, "Love in the Asylum," which is memorably presented here.)
The film was shot entirely in Thomas' birthplace of Swansea, Wales, credibly subbing for New York and New England.
"Set Fire to the Stars."
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's NoHo 7, North Hollywood.