'A Poet in New York': The Last Days of Dylan Thomas
As A Poet in New York observes the poet's decline, it also examines the cult of celebrity and its ramifications.
“I wasn’t always like this, you know,” Dylan Thomas (Tom Hollander) laments. He's speaking to an adoring audience in the opening scenes of A Poet in New York. Billed as “the greatest living poet in the English speaking world,” on this, his fourth visit to Manhattan, Thomas doesn’t quite look like it. Sweaty and slovenly, he's just finished violently puking into a bucket backstage. “I used to be such a lovely little boy,” he continues, then quietly begins a recitation of “Fern Hill”: ”Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs…”
The film, airing on BBCA this month, follows the final sad days of Thomas’ life. Arriving at Idelwild airport on 10 October 1953 into the care of American poet John Brinnin (Ewen Bremner) and Brinnin’s assistant, Liz (Phoebe Fox), he immediately appears a wreck. The three share a complex and codependent interrelationship: Brinnin has arranged the US tour, which will culminate with a meeting between Thomas and Stravinsky. He acts as Thomas’ agent, but sees himself, as he puts it, as a “fellow poet and friend,” though Thomas treats him abominably, as he also does Liz, who serves as something of an editor, nursemaid, and lover. Despite his confidence as a poet being a shambles, Thomas seems desperate for the trip, as it allows him a break from his explosive marriage to Caitlin (Essie Davis) who remains at their home in Wales.
The portrayal of Thomas’ decline is visceral from the first moments to the last, evoking that same second-hand queasiness one experiences watching, say, Leaving Las Vegas, with explicit images of obliterating drunkenness, retching, and emotionless, mechanical sex, as well as the spasmodic gasping for breath coming out of a blackout or descending into an asthma attack. Watching Thomas' experience is riveting.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t only show this decline. Rather, director Aisling Walsh gives us a break, cutting back and forth in time to “the beginning”: dreamy, light-saturated memories of Thomas’ childhood and earlier, happier days with Caitlin. These underscore the smoggy, bleak images of New York, making the city seem that much dirtier, and Thomas' current state that much more pitiable. This is particularly true as those flashbacks are presented as he reads his own poetry over those images: "All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hayfields high as the house," he intones as we see the boy version of him running through gold-green fields. Those affected, comforting, idyllic memories are finely crafted imaginings of Thomas’ creativity like his writing, an escape from the current misery.
Those memories shift though and lose their soothing purpose, transforming into more ugliness. He isn’t just a boy running carefree through a field. Now he is chased by other taunting children who insist he can’t “make” anything and ignore his rattled, choking breathing as he collapses. Caitlin dancing lyrically on the beach is displaced by her raging, and punching, and accusing. Now the memories don’t serve as an escape, but a reminder of what he seeks to escape.
Escape is a resonant theme in A Poet in New York. Shuffling out of a bar, Thomas finds himself staring at a billboard for Houdini. He’s mesmerized for a moment, mumbling, “That’s it.” It’s not a subtle correlation, but it is effective.
Thomas is trapped in many ways. Physically, he is literally trapped: Caitlin, and Liz too, lock him inside rooms, forcing him to write. Emotionally, he is infantile, coddled by his mother who still feeds him baby food (bread soaked in milk) and slips him drinking money behind the disappointed backs of both his father and his wife. Numerous scenes depict a pleading Thomas resting his head at Caitlin’s breast or Liz’s, like a little boy in need of comforting.
He is trapped by his alcoholism, financial strain, a volatile marriage, paranoia, impotence, the asthma that plagued him his whole life and the pressure to live up to his talent. It is little wonder escape seems desirable, in whatever form.
But despite the film’s disturbing portrayal of Thomas’ many struggles and his infuriating recklessness, it doesn’t heap the blame for his early death at 39, a month later, entirely on his shoulders. In a slightly less overt way than its escapist theme, A Poet in New York also examines the cult of celebrity and its ramifications. Everyone around Thomas, from his agents to his family to his fans, are quintessential enablers.
In those first moments of the film, as Thomas vomits relentlessly, Liz suggests that he can’t go onstage, but Brinnin dismisses her: “I’ve seen him like this before.” They shove him onstage and he delivers. He is bolstered by the applause and he is indulged with drinks and sex until he is propped up with injections and pills so that he can do it all over again. Thomas is fully aware of what is happening, even as he exploits it: “Everyone wants to bite little bites of me,” he sighs, and offers himself up for more.