Harvard graduate and poetry teacher John Brinnin’s (Elijah Wood) precise opening steps accompany his equally meticulous repetition of tour dates prepared for literary hero, Dylan Thomas (Celyn Jones, also on writing duties). But it is clear from the initial jazz-dowsed introductions that Brinnin will remain the steady bassline, Thomas the improvising drums and brass. Recounting the celebrated Welsh poet’s first trip to America, breaking their first host’s Crock-Pot is the least of this magnificently cast duo’s worries.
Leaving a burning imprint in the snow of 1950’s New York, Thomas’ froth-filled lungs and blood-based coughing fits cast an ominous shadow. Impulsive, unpredictable and often talking in riddles, Dylan’s lyrical and damaged sides are conveyed to perfection by Jones. At times a man-child dependent on bath and bed, we are never in doubt that he is of unparalleled talent. Though Brinnin initially indulges the poet’s want for candy bars and the odd shot of Red Eye, the peppy fanboy soon realises his attempts at steering a chronic drinker back on track are miserably futile.
A decision to up sticks to Connecticut between performances allows everyone the chance to breathe, refreshingly never lingering on the melancholy for longer than needed. A delightful interlude comes in the form of John’s neighbours Stanley (Kevin Eldon) and Shirley (Shirley Henderson), providing brief respite for an increasingly weary John and bored Dylan. A sequence of horror stories delivers magnetic brilliance, the bespectacled and slightly unhinged Henderson complemented by Wood to cast a remarkable stillness over the audience. But, just when Brinnin thinks he has his idol tamed with Superman comics and the great outdoors, it detonates in glorious fashion at an imperative tour date.
As palpable as the smell of wet timber frames and rain that falls on Brinnin’s cabin is the spectral presence of Dylan’s wife, Caitlin (Kelly Reilly). A reluctance to open a letter from his spouse culminates in a haunting, stylised scene that turns the man into a quivering wreck, Reilly powerfully asserting Caitlin’s impact with just a few sentences.
Even without being able to see the natural, piercing blue of his eyes, Wood demands your attention; the way he eats up Dylan’s live prose a mirror image of our appreciation for Jones’ astonishing performance. Though Brinnin feels betrayed by Thomas’ weakness, moments of heartbreaking tenderness between the pair showcase Wood’s prowess for nuance, aided by Gruff Rhys’ delicate, integral score. It may necessitate some previous knowledge regarding the man’s family, but as a late breaking of the fourth wall substantiates, Set Fire To The Stars, like Dylan Thomas himself, has the ability to stir your deepest emotions.