Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), a gifted Welsh poet, wrote many of his most extraordinary poems when he was still a teenager: "And Death Shall Have No Dominion," "Before I Knocked" and "The Force that Through the Green Fuse Drives The Flower." When further works of his were published in The Listener in 1934, he impressed two major literary figures of the day. T. S. Eliot and Stephen Spender.
Set Fire to Stars revolves around Dylan Thomas's (Celyn Jones) first visit to the United States in 1950 when John Brinnin (Elijah Wood), a Harvard professor of poetry and creative writing arranged a 40-week tour of readings. This admirer is brimming with enthusiasm about introducing Americans to Thomas's sonorous voice and lyrical creativity. Back in Europe, the poet already had a bad reputation for heavy drinking and outrageous behavior. Brinnin is warned by his superiors to keep this voracious "man-child" under control.
When things go badly at the Welch poet's introduction to the public, Brinnin whisks him off to a countryside retreat to sober him up and calm him down. The most revealing scenes in the movie directed by Andy Goddard come when Stanley Hyman (Kevin Eldon) and his wife Shirley (Shirley Henderson) show-up for a party. After drinking quite a bit of booze, they settle down to tell stories. Shirley shares a horror tale and then, pressed to contribute, Brinnin gives a poignant account of a childhood prank resulting in the death of two small creatures. Thomas is moved by his tour manager's only connection with his emotions.
Shot in monochrome digital by cinematographer Chris Seager, Set Fire to the Stars offers other insights and delights as well. The writer Elizabeth Hardwick recalled what an intoxicating presence Dylan Thomas was and the tension he would build up in a room before his readings: "Would he arrive only to break down on the stage? Would some dismaying scene take place at the faculty party? Would he be offensive, violent, obscene? These were alarming and yet exhilarating possibilities."