‘Memory — what a mess. It’s as much fiction as it is truth’
Compelled by a desire to peer inside a creative inner world, a director’s portrayal of literary figures is far from unusual. Whether they embrace the biopic for historic reality- think Bennett Miller’s Capote– or wax lyrical and celebrity-spot as seen in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, when done effectively, the ‘literary film’ can eulogise an artist, marrying their work and legacy to a visual medium.
Last Call, Steven Bernstein’s biographical portrait of poet Dylan Thomas (portrayed by the sensational Rhys Ifans), opens in medias res, so to speak. Thomas is the subject of a conversation between Dr Felton (portrayed by veteran actor John Malkovich), a character based on Thomas’ real New York physician Dr. Feltenstein, and Thomas’ tour manager Brinnan (Tony Hale), based on the real organiser of the 1953 tour, John Brinnin.
Upon entry to this film, the outsider’s position to the artist is transparent. We are not satiated with Thomas’ subjectivity, nor afforded access to the unknowable artist, we are encouraged to learn of his vulnerability with detachment — through the eyes of those around him.
Simply put, the film follows Thomas as he spends a day of his ultimate American tour drinking in the White Horse Tavern. While we see various scenes absent of Thomas, mostly between Felton and Brinnan, he is for the most part at the centre of their discussions. Including the student organisers and fans of Thomas, it appears that all other characters exist only in relation to Thomas, as extensions of his story. Critics of the film may view this adversely, with the view that secondary characters are rendered thin and superficial. On the other hand, this protagonistic focus reveals the film’s structure as orbital. Secondary characters are in the pull of Thomas’ actions, their own fortune at the whims of his instability, earning the film a theatrical texture to its composition.
Before the film’s procession into its primary timeline, the camera hangs high in aerial view of young Thomas running through foliage and snow. Freud’s writings on the uncanny proffer “an adult cannot look back on childhood as a child, which implies a mysterious and impenetrable chasm between adults and children.” It is this irreconcilable space wherein memories swell and rise up; they animate and splice the film spontaneous.
Memories, quite literally, colour the narrative. With each disorientating cut to the past, we depart from New York’s stark black and white into sublimely colourised rural Wales, a landscape at home in Thomas’ pantheistic writing.
Even without the compelling insertions of Thomas’ poetry recitals, Bernstein’s literary influence is obvious. The narrative is intersected by epistolary moments wherein Thomas’ wife Caitlin (Romola Garai) expresses her financial desperation through letters to Thomas. In parallel with her husband, who night after night recites his poetry before hungry audiences, Caitlin is afforded moments of bard-like monologue as she reads aloud the contents of her letters. It is perhaps down to one’s own interpretation whether these letter-writing scenes represent Thomas’ subjectivity upon receiving the letters or simply constitute narrative exposition for the audience. In either case, Caitlin’s words are not disembodied, they corroborate the film’s oral expression of literature and temper its egocentricity.
Paying homage to James Joyces’ Ulysses, the circadian epic wherein Leopold Bloom drinks, eats, masturbates, and wanders Dublin, Thomas’ time spent at the White Horse Tavern spans the duration of the film. Thomas’ intellect amongst punters alienates him at first, though he eventually rouses the room with his eccentricities and magnetism. White light hangs like dust over him as he baptises his drinks, one by one, with a moniker suited to wherever his stream of consciousness takes him. He raises his drink to enthusiasm, to hope, to recalcitrance, to faith, to bravado, to regret, to excess, and eventually, to intoxication.
Marked most visibly by the arrival of Caitlin, colourised still as she infiltrates the tavern as a figment of his imagination, Thomas’ inebriation accelerates into hysteria. Using women to represent fragments of recollection has been seen before, Charlie Kaufman’s recent I’m Thinking of Ending Things comes to mind as one example. Whereas Kaufman’s duplicitous storytelling feels innovative, the directness of Bernstein’s colour insertion into a black and white space felt slightly contrived. Perhaps the transatlantic separation of Caitlin and Thomas should have remained, to accentuate the tragedy of their estrangement. Nevertheless, Caitlin’s hyperreal arrival plants her into Thomas’ climactic final hours.
On November 9th 1953, Dylan Thomas died at the age of 39; according to the coroner’s report, without any sign of liver cirrhosis. Remarkably, Thomas’ biographers have expressed that Thomas was not an alcoholic, corresponding to the belief that oversights of his physicians were the true cause of his untimely death. It’s critical to reconcile truth with fiction, and it seems that Bernstein’s film ran along the trajectory of the carousing, turbulent life of Thomas, one most known to the public. Most vitally of all, Last Call presents a version of Thomas aligned with Caitlin’s own. Recounting their relationship, she expressed “the bar was our altar”. Bernstein’s film presents a traffic between sympathy and fascination, veneration and notoriety. Although a dramatisation of such complex matters could be viewed as frivolous, Last Call is a riveting meditation on the ambiguity surrounding Dylan Thomas’ final hours, making for a welcome addition to the genre.