“Never meet your heroes,” is the tagline for the Andy Goddard-directed film Set Fire to the Stars. And in so many ways, this is true. Disappointment is bound to be on the brink of any meeting, shattering a fantastic image you’ve created in your head. The film, based on the real-life accounts with Dylan Thomas in his later years as told by writer John Brinnin, is understated and beautiful to look at, but struggles to bring us any closer to either character.
John Brinnin (Elijah Wood) is a college professor who has his heart set on bringing famous poet Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones) to North America for a national poetry college tour. John is a poet himself and risks his career when pleading his case to the university board to sponsor Thomas. Why is his career on the line? Well, Dylan Thomas isn’t exactly the best guest. He’s unruly, rowdy, and a drunkard who’s prone to making scenes and a spectacle at parties.
Disregarding this completely, John finally brings Thomas over for his first American tour. And while John plays caretaker to Thomas, the popular poet goes about doing what he usually does and not only embarrasses himself, but John as well, never quite understanding the stakes. Thomas is torn about an unopened letter from his wife and John starts seeing Thomas for what he really is and not through rose colored glasses.
Set Fire to the Stars is a good depiction and lesson as to why one should never meet their heroes in the wake of possibly being disappointed. After all, they’re only human. And John, like most people, held a vision of Thomas that was completely and utterly shattered by their encounters and brief friendship (if one could call it such a thing).
While the premise is delightful and holds a lot of potential and possibilities for the lead characters’ interactions, the story never quite gives us too much depth. We’re meant to go into the story knowing something brief about Thomas, but a bit of background might have done the story better. The relationship between John and Thomas is volatile, constantly changing, and challenging for the both of them in different ways. However, from the start they’re pushing each other’s buttons without really doing much else. It’s a shame too, that there isn’t more depth to their relationship because Elijah Wood and Celyn Jones embody their characters and the scenes where they’re verbally sparring are brimming with onscreen chemistry.
Even if the story falls a bit on the two dimensional side of things, the cinematography is right on point. The choice to make the film’s color scheme sepia-toned gives the film an old photograph look, like we’re reading about John’s escapades with Thomas in the moment it happened. Set Fire to the Stars isn’t a film for everyone. It’s only a bit biographical and told from the perspective of John without much thought into Thomas’s personal history. The film could have done to expand its time line. By the time Thomas’s wife (Kelly Reilly) makes an appearance, one which takes place in his head, we’re not at a point to care as much as we should. An underwhelming film with a lot of potential.