“How much trouble can one poet be?” That’s literature professor John Malcolm Brinnin’s rhetorical response to his buttoned-way-down colleagues’ fears about a writer’s proposed visit to New York in 1950. Today, the query can’t be heard as anything other than an inside joke. For the poet is Dylan Thomas, who was trouble for most of his 39 years.
Set Fire to the Stars takes its title from a line written by Thomas, who’s played by Celyn Jones, the movie’s co-writer. But the story is just as much about Brinnin, impersonated by Elijah Wood, the film’s most marketable performer and its co-producer. The script was fictionalized from a section of Dylan Thomas in America, a 1955 memoir by Brinnin, who facilitated several tours by the poet ”” including the 1953 one on which he died.
As portrayed here, Thomas and Brinnin shared two enthusiasms: poetry and cigarettes. While the visiting Welshman drinks heavily, womanizes compulsively and offends promiscuously, the bow-tied, slick-haired Brinnin channels all his frustration into chain smoking.