fri 20/09/2019

Dylan Thomas: A Poet in New York, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Dylan Thomas: A Poet in New York, BBC Two

Dylan Thomas: A Poet in New York, BBC Two

When the legend becomes fact, film the legend

Infuriating but captivating: Tom Hollander as the drink-sodden bard

Swansea's much-mythologised son would have been 100 in October this year, but he died in New York in 1953, from a list of medical problems exacerbated by his colossal intake of alcohol. Thomas's doomed, chaotic trajectory could almost qualify as the first rock'n'roll death, since the New York that lionised him would soon hail the Beat poets, the Folk Revival and the Bob Dylan whose adopted name and freewheelin' versifying both bore Thomas's imprint.

This film about his final days and death in New York was involving and hugely watchable, with Tom Hollander tackling the title role like a pocket-sized volcano. Having seen him so recently as the doleful and increasingly tragic cleric in Rev, if this was going to work it was vital that we were immediately confronted with an emphatically transformed Hollander. And lo, we were. Chubby, sweaty, charming, cunning, lascivious and desperate, his Dylan Thomas was infuriating but captivating, his frequently repulsive personal behaviour magicked away in the stardust of his own cascading imagery (Dylan takes a cab, below).  

He was particularly forceful in the scenes where Thomas recited his own work to spellbound audiences (his American patron John Brinnin introduced him as "perhaps the finest reader of poetry the world has ever seen," and nobody laughed). Tottering, hung over, to the lectern after throwing up in a bucket only moments before, he recited Fern Hill in a state of suspended rapture, enhanced by intercut glimpses of the idyllic childhood scenes which inspired it. Mild and wimpish-sounding in Rev, Hollander, like a thespian Clark Kent, was suddenly wielding a rolling Richard Burton-ish baritone with aplomb.

Written by Andrew Davies and directed by Aisling Walsh, A Poet... wisely stuck to the old dictum "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend". It looked a bit like a biography, with its flashbacks to Thomas's schoolteacher-father urging him not to waste his talent and scenes of the young Dylan suffering asthmatic panic attacks after being bullied by schoolmates, but really it just lifted some of the juiciest nuggets from the Thomas mythology and gave them a loving filmic burnishing.

They'd done a fine job of recreating 1950s New York, all yellow Chevrolet taxicabs, jagged neon, weather-beaten skyscrapers and police sirens. Shots of Thomas surveying the grimy streets from a balcony on the Chelsea Hotel - how rock'n'roll is that? - were a handy metaphor for "too fast to live, too young to die", and the way every bar he went into enveloped him in a warming whisky-coloured light and raw, bluesy jazz music merely underlined it. "I have abused the temple of my body in every way known to man," he orated at one point, as though laying down a template for all self-destructive artists with a fat narcissistic streak.

Certainly a little of his deranged behaviour must have gone a long way, even if we could have done with a few more of his obscene limericks. His approach to getting the opposite sex into the sack was more like ram-raiding than seduction ("I've fallen in love with you, we must spend the night together, I absolutely insist," was his opening remark to one female stranger), while his alcohol-fuelled relationship with wife Caitlin (Essie Davis, pictured left with Hollander) was a strip-cartoon explosion of rage, infidelity and remorse, more of an addiction than a marriage. But then, listening to choice extracts from Under Milk Wood or Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, you began to understand how he got away with it.

Like a thespian Clark Kent, Hollander was suddenly wielding a rolling Richard Burton-ish baritone with aplomb

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Comments

The film was made for the centenary of Thomas' birth. Why then concentrate so much on the final few days of his life and, as you say in the review, dramatise the Dylan legend rather than try and portray the truth? For example, the eighteen straight whiskies was merely his last lie. There was no need to perpetuate it. The seriousness of this venture can be judged by the scene of Dylan's spirit lifting from his corporeal self on his hospital bed (he actually died while being given a bed bath) and this phantom phantom rising to smile as it watched his younger self gambolling through the child high hay around pretend Fern Hill. Beautifully acted and filmed but made for entertainment rather than insight.

Well of course it was made for entertainment... What isn't made for entertainment these days

I thought the ending was meant to suggest that a great writer never dies, but lives on in his or her work.

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