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You May Know Him: BBC2’s New Biopic about Dylan Thomas’s Final Days
I approached BBC Two’s Dylan Thomas biopic A Poet in New York with the feeling that the best way to mark the centenary of the birth of Swansea’s most celebrated son would be to curl up with a copy of Under Milk Wood. Poetry is personal, and poets in the flesh or on the screen rarely measure up to the demigods they are on the page. So why go there?
Two reasons, as it happens: Tom Hollander and Andrew Davies. Hollander, whom we’re used to seeing as a perplexed teddy bear in the gentle comedy Rev, made a startlingly good Thomas, while the script came from one of the few writers who could hope to do the poet justice. Hollander’s portrayal of Thomas in his last, wheezing, sleazy, whisky-soaked days on an American reading tour deftly combined buffoonery and tragedy. This was tragedy in the Shakespearean sense: a great man undone by one fatal weakness. Or in Thomas’s dramatised words, uttered with impeccable wryness by Hollander: “I have abused the temple of my body in every way known to man,” and, “Bring me bourbon. Too much of it.” The production was lush, lyrical and very, very funny.
In the autumn of 1953, Thomas was turning 39 and unravelling fast. His health was shot, his writing stalled, his marriage as stable as a one-legged ironing board. For the New York literati, however, Thomas was simply the “world’s greatest living poet”. Last night’s film tapped into the poignant comedy of this mismatch, with brittle Americans fawning over a rumpled Welshman.
The production flicked between this final stint in New York, and the poet’s earlier days with his family in Laugharne, South Wales. The latter provided a crackle of drama that was inevitably lacking in the scenes of his American decline. Essie Davis played his wife, Caitlin, as a woman ablaze with a bitter energy, sparking off Hollander superbly. Together they provided the perfect antithesis to the woefully glamourised version of the same relationship in the 2008 film The Edge of Love, that starred Matthew Rhys and Sienna Miller. Her performance was fitting for a woman who was reported to have said, on arriving at the New York hospital where her husband lay comatose, “Is the bloody man dead yet?”
The tricky relationship between Thomas and his US minder, the poet John Malcolm Brinnin (Ewen Bremner), was well handled, while Phoebe Fox also made a convincingly poised Liz Reitell, a literary assistant and Thomas’s long-suffering lover. Brinnin and Reitell were sad accessories to the final downwards spiral that ended in the poet’s death, on November 9, from some combination of asthma, pneumonia and 18 straight whiskeys. The most moving scene was not the hospital bedside, though; it was the lecture theatres where Thomas read his poems. Here, Hollander was intoxicating, not intoxicated. This was poetry in every sense, as all the seedy struggle of Thomas’s life melted into the immortal cadences of his words.
Sigh… if only he went to San Francisco. Learn more at the Telegraph.