Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 24, 2020 12:57 pm 
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Dylan Thomas reading "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night"

An effective but cruel recreation of poet Dylan Thomas' final hours

How to tell the story of the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas? Why, by depicting the day in 1953 when he drank himself to death in a Greenwich Village bar, what else? Such at least was the decision of Steven Bernstein, who has written and directed this mostly black and white film starring Rhys Ifans as Thomas, Romola Garai as Caitlin, his wife, Tony Hale as his US liaison John Malcolm Brinnan, Rodrigo Santoro as Carlos, the bartender at the White Horse Tavern where Thomas drinks the fatal "18 straight whiskeys," and John Malkovich as an effete doctor Felton who pops in and out to tell Thomas he must stop drinking or he will die. This makes for a compelling, if brutal, depiction of the man and a relentless picture of a suicidal alcoholic. It is splendidly theatrical; in fact, it could as well have been a play. But as ably done as it is, as compulsively watchable, it's not fair to the memory of Dylan Thomas.

This is a fine opportunity for the character actor, Rhys Ifans, who is Welsh, to indulge in the self-dramatizing behavior that, it is suggested, was typical of the drunken Thomas. This Thomas gives each of the fatal double shots of scotch a different name that he announces to those in the bar, starting with "Innocence," moving on to "Enthusiasm, Hope, Faith," and so on, with some of the last ones "Excess, Despondence," and "Sadness."

As Thomas drinks the numbered and named drinks, the movie swirls in and out with other scenes to, so to speak, round out the picture. They show Brinnan, at first with the prissy, campy doctor played partly for humor and partly for gruesomeness by Malkovich, then also by himself, then with the doctor again. In an early scene the fastidious, bow-tie wearing sawbones declares he has no use for poetry. In another, he cuts up a cadaver before a classic medical school operating theater with scary sawing noises as watching med students drop off, fainting. As usual, Malkovich steals the show.

Toby Hale's John Malcolm Brinnan is seen as a humorless but diligent man, responsible for arranging Dylan's many appearances to read at colleges and concerned when he can't find him before a reading at Vassar. These readings, in flashbacks, are depicted as at all-female schools like Vassar, Mills, or Radcliffe, with auditoriums packed full of attentive, swooning girl students, some of whom Thomas presumably will seduce. Caitlin, letter-writing at a table , at one point reports she has heard he has a "mistress" in America. In various scenes, Brinnan lends Dylan the sole manuscript of a book he has written, which Dylan later turns out to have lost, and Brinnan confronts the very drunken and damaged Thomas with this grievous error in the bar.

Other scenes show Caitlin in Wales in pastel colors, sometimes in the time of the couple's first courtship, with moments to show the relationship was complicated; or sitting to write and voice for us ironically worded letters pointing out that she and the three hungry, threadbare children direly need him to send cash. (He apparently is squandering it all, or not getting any.) She too, drinks and smokes. She also turns up repeatedly through the day as a sole figure in color at the White Horse, a figment of Thomas' drunken imagination.

The almost hallucinatory progress of this terrible day, the swirling flashbacks and expository scenes are pulled together with a running hourly timeline. Thomas arrives at 9 a.m. when the bar opens. We go hour after hour into the night, till closing time, the hours given and the number of shots downed. These orderly devices undercut a sense of the disorientation and fluidity drunkenness creates. Thomas' successive trips to the loo are as if counted off too, though not exactly, and happily without following him inside as he progresses from peeing to vomiting, to vomiting fecal matter, to vomiting blood, with Dr. Felton outside to explain for us what this may mean ("a contraction of the duodenum"), but unwilling to go in to help Thomas out because he can't mess up his white waistcoat.

There is something cold and unimaginative - but undeniably effective - about the way Bernstein tells this story. It lacks the poetry, the magic of Dylan Thomas' presence, voice and verses. Ifans repeatedly is shown at the college readings delivering snatches of Dylan Thomas' poetry, as well as his well-loved "A Child's Christmas in Wales." He does this impressively enough, perhaps, unless you have heard the sonorous recordings of the real Thomas reading "Fern Hill" "In the White Giant's Thigh," or "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." Though he is Welsh, Ifans does not have Thomas' splendid voice, or the almost incantatory quality of his recitations of his own lines. It was this, of course, this inimitable sound, that made the readings so magical. (It's suggested, I think accurately, that toward the end of this final American tour as people got wind of Thomas' drunkenness and his philandering there were some near-empty auditoriums.)

Another cold touch, and a sly and dramatic one, is provided by Carlos, the impeccable barman, tall, handsome, mustachioed, with a Spanish accent, doling out the drinks to Dylan Thomas one after another without hesitation, in effect his emotionless murderer. He has already surprised us by grabbing an innocent Vassar girl and swirling her around in a tango. And then he catches Thomas (and us) off guard by quoting back to him some sophisticated lines of poetry, thus revealing he has an English literary education and graduated from Columbia University.

At this point Carlos, the impeccable, distant barman, stepping quite out of character, suddenly launches into a cruel assessment of Thomas' poetry. He stops calling him "Mr. Thomas" and switches to "Dylan": "You fooled them all. . . Our secret, your secret, is you know and I know. . . There's nothing there, just the cadence of the language. Nothing else. Not Auden, not Yeats. You think your self-destruction is grand theater. It's not. It's simply sad. Just a performance of your own pathetic vaudeville show with nothing of importance to say." But while this works well dramatically, with Rodrigo Santoro providing the most pleasingly surprising performance in the film, it also is over-explanatory, spelling out what the action and scenes should have shown us, and saying not a single nice thing about Thomas' poetry which was once so admired and many still enjoy.

The film, which leaves Dylan Thomas collapsed on the floor of the White Horse Tavern but explains he went into a coma back at the Chelsea Hotel, then died days later at Saint Vincent's Hospital in the Village, is a brilliant performance. But it is brittle and cruel. The cherubic Dylan Thomas, the Welsh poet with the golden voice whom Robert Lowell called "a dazzling obscure writer who can be enjoyed without understanding," deserved better than this.

Last Call, originally "Dominion" (and listed at movie theaters under that title now), 101 mins., was shown as a work in progress at Rio Oct. 7, 2020. Limited US release set for Nov. 25, 2020 was postponed in many areas, including much of California, due to COVID restrictions. Release still planned on that day for select theaters in San Francisco, Washington DC, Boston, Miami, Dallas and Atlanta. An updated list of theaters where it is showing will be found on the film's website: . It is currently listed as "Dominion" at local movie theaters.

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