The sheer achievement of shooting a feature length film in 18 days is impressive on its own, to then turn that into something as stylish and well produced as Set Fire to the Stars is worth applauding. Fortunately, this is what happened when director Andy Goddard and his team premiered their film at the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Filmed in black and white, Set Fire to the Stars depicts the time that Professor John M. Brinnan (Elijah Wood) and poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) spent together during Thomas’ first American tour in the early 1950s. As Brinnan unsuccessfully attempts to control the notorious hellraiser, he is forced to re-assess his own choices, embarking on a tumultuous journey towards self-discovery.
The film is centered on the two leads, and they both give solid performances. Jones shines as the tragicomic whirlwind that Thomas was, and Wood has accepted his place at his side. However, the theatricality of their performances prevents you from engaging with the story properly. The characters constantly speak as if they are reciting poetry (perhaps they are), and the film never attempts to veil its artifice. This works well at times, but is overused. Fortunately, what it lacks in authenticity, it makes up for with style.
Like the cigarette smoke that constantly surrounds the characters, an aura of ‘cool’ illuminates the film. With nods to both Bergman and Film Noir, the cinematographer and editors have done a fantastic job in crafting a world that is as beautiful as it is sinister. Theatres turn into anxiety-inducing spaces where Thomas’ superiors monitor his every move, and a letter from home evolves into a harrowing visualization of what Thomas left behind. Kelly Rielly plays this scene to raw perfection – it is a shame that she does not have more screen-time.
Set Fire to the Stars is not a film without its problems, but there are moments when it shimmers. It is a highly atmospheric and imaginatively told tale from beginning to end, and is clearly a labour of love. Do keep an eye out for it.