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Sad Bromance

Sad Bromance

Elijah Wood

Elijah Wood’s braves the history of gay repression in Set Fire to the Stars

Not every gay film is a celebration but a work of art should, somehow, affirm life. That's the intention ofSet Fire to the Stars, a dual biography of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and American academic John Malcolm Brinnin, also a poet, who sponsored Thomas' U.S. college speaking tour in 1950 recounted in the film.

The prim, bookish, buttoned-up, probably gay Brinnin (played by Elijah Woods) is contrasted with the carousing heterosexual Thomas (Celyn Jones). The emotional dynamic of their literary and personality clash questions "norms" of masculinity by revealing both men's insecurities. Shot in glossy black-and-white that gives the period setting the look of a fable, Set Fire to the Stars bromanticizes the era of closeted sympathies and empathy.

Blustery Thomas taunts "Kiss me! Take me to bed!" Fastidious Brinnin answers "No. Absolutely not." Then Thomas commands: "Punch me in nose. Bloody my mind with your rage and forgive me nothing. Hold me tenderly as your friend and keep my secrets." This provocation -- the verbal essence of a rough-trade hook-up -- is meant to coax Brinnin out of his emotional closet. It recalls the wisdom learned by Alan Bates and Anthony Quinn in the lusty life-force movie Zorba the Greek. Set Fire to the Stars is a more obviously poetic, but milder, affair.

It is constrained by the filmmakers' sentiments and literary conceits. Jones resembles a young Jackie Gleason and plays Thomas like an Orson Welles genius-brat. Woods takes his discreet Brinnin characterization as far as possible -- he's gay in every bow-tied, effete way except action. His wide eyes glisten at the sound of Thomas's poetic recitations -- almost as lovingly as Woods's Frodo's passionate friendship with Sam (Sean Astin) in The Lord of the Rings (their mountain-scaling stress felt like a metaphor for a gay couple's struggle pre-Marriage Equality -- the only good thing in that overwrought franchise). As he showed in Pawn Shop Chronicles, Woods can be an actor of surprising daring and challenging taste.

Dylan Thomas

Both of these actors convey some truth about gay and straight men's defense mechanisms (repression, drinking) that are also self-destructive. Cultural repression is made evident when the writer Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman visit and the quartet drunkenly share horror stories that reflect the era's sexual anxiety (piquant-voiced Shirley Henderson nearly steals the movie).

Director Andy Goddard co-wrote the script with Jones, inspired by Brinnin's 1953 book Dylan Thomas in America where Brinnin confessed "personal devotion fired by the messianic enthusiasm of which perhaps only some very young poets are capable, or culpable." It's the bromance of repression -- the topic Isaac Julien explored in his opulent 1990 black-and-white docu-drama Looking for Langston (about gay poet Langston Hughes) and was the subject of last year's fascinating drama Maladies. These films examine and lament restrictions of the gay past.

That Brinnin's own suppression ("I think I am as well-known as I deserve to be") remains a tendency even in today's era of free-wheeling gay identity gives Elijah Woods's brave portrait of Brinnin a lingering melancholy.

Set Fire to the Stars is in select theaters July 12. Watch the trailer below:

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