A Poet in New York review: Tom Hollander shines in this otherwise dull Dylan Thomas biopic

by Matt D
Tom Hollander

Tom Hollander

One type of TV drama that can be hit and miss is that of the biopic. Recently we saw Simon Nye deliver an example of how to do a biopic correctly with his excellent Tommy Cooper drama. However, occasionally a dreary biopic comes along of a person who you find it hard to sympathise with. That’s definitely the case with A Poet in New York, Andrew Davies’ look at Dylan Thomas’ last days as he oversaw a performance of Under Milk Wood in the Big Apple. In fact I would have found it incredibly dreary had it not been for the central performance of Hollander I would have struggled to watch A Poet in New York to the very end.

Part of the reason for this is because Davies doesn’t attempt to say anything new about his subject. Thomas’ final days in New York are marred by bouts of heavy drinking and womanising just so Davies can make it clear that the poet is an incredibly self-destructive figure. The two relationships the film focuses on in the New York scenes are that of Thomas and his agent John Malcolm Brinnin as well as his assistant and lover Liz Reitell. It’s clear that John sees his bond with Thomas as a strong friendship and likes to brag about it to his friends. However, Thomas later shows him up in public claiming that he’s nothing but a dancing bear and John is his handler. Although alcohol is the destructive force in many of Thomas’ relationships, it seems that money is equally a factor that tears he and John apart. Despite being acclaimed as the greatest living poet of the early 1950s, Thomas is still broke primarily thanks to his alcoholism. When he realises that Tom hasn’t been paying him all the he’s owed, he looks for new representation, basically breaking the heart of the man who is essentially in love with him. Meanwhile, it’s clear that Liz is in awe of Thomas’ genius and agrees to help him rewrite Under Milk Wood in order for it to be ready for an audience. Liz enjoys her time writing with Thomas but it seems she’s less enthusiastic about her role as his lover, especially see as he can’t perform as he used to. With Thomas’ health rapidly deteriorating, Liz is often on hand when the poet collapses or struggles to breath. It does seem that Thomas does have some affection towards Liz but is more concerned with using her than actually beginning a romance with her.

Tom Hollander

This is partly due to the fact that Thomas is married to the passionate Caitlin, who has mixed feelings about her husband’s career choices. In order not to make this feel like a straight biography of Thomas’ life, Davies decides to include a fair amount of flashbacks in A Poet in New York which I’m sure were meant to give some context to the poet’s behaviour in 1953. A lot of these flashbacks focused on the relationship between Caitlin and Dylan and in particular her frustration that his poetry never really brought in that much money. She appeared to be incredibly angry with her husband’s constant drinking and aware that he was playing away from home a lot of the time. The programme also suggested that Dylan had a close bond with his daughter Aeronwy who had a similar personality to that of her father. This closeness is something Dylan doesn’t have with his own father who refuses to lend his son money partly because he knows that he’ll only spend it down the pub. It seems that Dylan’s father believes that his son is squandering his writing talent and that he should concentrate more on poetry and less on drinking. However, in one of the best scenes in the drama, father and son share a deathbed reconciliation where Dylan admits that his dad was the inspiration for the majority of his poetry. This is demonstrated by a reading of ‘Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night’, which I have to say got me quite emotional.

Despite painting its subject’s personal life in a negative light, A Poet in New York clearly demonstrates how much of a genius Thomas was. The rehearsals and performances of Under Milk Wood really showcase the talent Thomas possessed when it came to writing. I personally feel that these celebrations of the man’s work were probably the drama’s strongest as everything else felt incredibly clich├ęd. For a man who is crediting with modernising the period drama, Andrew Davies really does very little to liven up the Thomas story. The use of flashbacks throughout the story felt uninspiring whilst most of the supporting characters were incredibly underwritten. I didn’t thinkthat Davies tried to make Thomas seem all that sympathetic and instead set out to demonstrate that the poet had an extremely self-destructive personality. Although most biopics focus on a talented but damaged individual, little had been done to make Thomas’ story feel engaging or that interesting. The most intriguing set pieces were when Thomas passed out and began to relive some of the more traumatic experiences of his youth. These sequences were well-directed by Aisling Walsh and were at least a little different from everything else that happened in the drama.

Tom Hollander

A Poet in New York’s saving grace was lead actor Tom Hollander who really did his best to get into the part. Whilst not as convincing as David Threlfall’s turn as Tommy Cooper, Hollander’s at least committed to the role by putting on a bit of weight. His Welsh accent came and went and times but I don’t think it affected the believability of his performance. Hollander perfectly portrayed a man on the edge who had nobody to save him from the harm that he was inflicting on himself. Hollander employed some of his comic timing to great effect especially in the early scenes where Thomas attended a party in New York. Hollander was equally at home in the drama’s more emotional moments and I personally felt that he made me care about the character more than Davies’ script ever did. Of the supporting players, Essie Davis put in a memorable turn as the turbulent Caitlin and the ever-reliable Ewan Bremner gave a solid performance as Thomas’ agent.

I personally found A Poet in New York was somewhat of a disappointing drama that did very little to make me sympathise, or even care, about the last days of Dylan Thomas. Whilst the drama did highlight the poet’s undeniable talents, this portrayal of a famous man with many demons has been done so much better in recent years. Ultimately, I think that Tom Hollander’s fantastic performance is probably the only thing I’ll remember about this rather unremarkable piece of work in a couple of months’ time.

Did you watch A Poet in New York? Did you enjoy it more than I did?

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