Set Fire to the Stars: Dylan Thomas in New York

The rather unusual film Set Fire to the Stars is a noteworthy tale about the hard-drinking bohemian (NB: the word “alcoholic” is not used once in the film) poet Dylan Thomas’s campus reading tour of the United States in the 1950s. The film follows the turbulent relationship between American poet and academic John M. Brinnin and Thomas, which sees Brinnin struggle to keep Thomas away from as much booze, insecurity and self-pity as possible in order to complete the tour of America, including the usual Ivy League powers such as Yale. Brinnin and Thomas flirt between states of respecting and despising one another in their quest for fame and fortune.

The film consists entirely of a black and white palette, thanks to cinematographer Chris Seager, a choice which seems to simultaneously give the production artistic and almost stage-like qualities. Critics are bound to disagree over this production decision, but personally I really like the artistic sense it appears to create, an aura so often associated with Literature. After all, poetry really is an art form. This aesthetic is accompanied by an original soundtrack written and performed by Gruff Rhys, producing sounds which engulf and engage the audience.

The film does not delve deep into the past or backstories of Thomas and Brinnin, remaining quite firmly on the surface of the events in New York. The only real exceptions to this are hints of the problematic nature of Thomas’s marriage. Whilst the film is primarily about Thomas’s time in the United States, a lack of background information can make the audience feel less-sympathetic towards the two characters (especially the rather melancholic stature that is Thomas himself). On the contrary it is also strangely refreshing to be removed from the entire breadth of Thomas’s poetic work, sweeping generalising epics of his life, and nostalgic accounts of his death. Set Fire to the Stars offers us a remarkable window – a brief moment in Thomas’s well-documented life. I suppose it is this quality that distinguishes the film from the previous biographical accounts of the poet, providing us with a new insight on the Welshman.

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