Producers: Steven Bernstein, Carolyn Rodney, Charles Agron, Jack Settipane, Richard N. Gladstein, John Malkovich, Jacek Szzumlas and Nolan McDonald Director: Steven Bernstein Screenplay: Steven Bernstein Cast: Rhys Ifans, Rodrigo Santorio, Romola Garai, Tony Hale, Zosia Mamet, Philip Ettinger, John Malkovich, Guy Sprung and Mike Paterson Distributor: K Street Pictures
The cult of Dylan Thomas may not be as large as it once was, but it’s still substantial, and its adherents may be drawn to Steven Bernstein’s imaginative but bloodless film about the Welsh poet’s last days in 1953. Whether they’ll be pleased by the portrait provided in “Last Call” is another question, which presents him as depressive and suicidal. What’s less uncertain is that they’ll be bored by the pretentious, overly stylized picture.
Most will at least be impressed by the commitment that Rhys Ifans brings to his performance as Thomas—not so much in the “narrative” portions, when he’s downing the eighteen whiskies he’s supposed to have chugged during a final binge at New York’s White Horse pub, as in the periodic reenactments of the poet’s recitations at various stops in the reading tour he was on at the time. During those scenes, shot through waves of cigarette smoke, Ifans conveys the spellbinding effect Thomas’ charismatic delivery had on listeners receptive to his ripe verse, sonorous voice and practiced theatrical gestures.
Apart from those sequences, however, Thomas emerges in Ifans’ performance as a pretty insufferable fellow, a preening showman with a self-destructive streak, utterly intent on mythologizing himself as a doomed genius. The trajectory of the script, which begins in the morning and counts down the hours as Thomas has those legendary (perhaps apocryphal) drinks, which he portentously names in remembrance of stages in his emotional life, beginning with “innocence” and continuing tediously until his collapse and death a few days later.
The stream of dialogue Bernstein provides Ifans with over the course of Thomas’ descent is, to say the least, rhetorically affected, and for the most part his near-captive audience, which includes regulars Felix (Guy Sprung) and Teddy (Mike Paterson) and Vassar coed Penny (Zosia Mamet), who lionizes him as a demigod, listen reverentially. (On the other hand, Penny’s friend Alexi, played by Philip Ettinger, is far from impressed, telling him off with a few choice words.)
Others come and go. The most notable is John Malcolm Brinnan (Tony Hale), who’s not only arranged Thomas’ tour but entrusted him with the only copy of his book, hoping futilely for his imprimatur. On occasion he’s accompanied by Dr. Felton (John Malkovich), an effete, cynical sort who seems more interested in making wry remarks and keeping his elegant wardrobe clean than in providing helpful medical advice, though I n one flashback he suggests that the poet lay off the booze. We see these two in separate scenes too, discussing Thomas with cruel detachment, even as Felton performs an autopsy on his corpse.
The other permanent fixture is the bartender Carlos (Rodrigo Santorio), who through most of the film is a bland presence serving up drinks, although he also has a penchant for dancing in the background. In the final act, however, he comes to the fore, the only person who berates Thomas for the vacuous quality of his poetry and the emptiness of his life.
All this “contemporary” material is shot in stark, artsy black-and-white by cinematographer Antal Steinbach on stagey sets provided by production designer Sylvain Gingras. But some variety is provided by color interventions representing action back in Wales—a few shots of Dylan as a boy running through snow-covered forests, but mostly scenes of him with his wife Caitlin (Romola Garai) and children before his departure, and later of her writing to berate him for drinking up whatever money he’s making rather than sending it home to support them. The two spheres intersect late in the film, when Thomas imagines Caitlin coming into the bar, the solitary figure in color against the otherwise black-and-white background. The effect is predictably striking from a visual perspective but emotionally hollow.
All of this is shuffled together by editors Chris Gill, Zimo Huang and Adam Bernstein with a ponderousness that reflects the film’s self-important approach, and Steven Bramson’s moody score merely adds to the lugubriousness.
Ifans’ performance is certainly a tour de force, although a highly histrionic one, and it frankly overshadows everyone else in the cast but for Malkovich, whose uniquely fey presence always stands out. (One would love to be able to compare Ifans’ portrayal with Alec Guinness’ turn as Thomas on stage in the early sixties, but of course there is no record of that.) Even Ifans, however, is playing to the rafters in what is overall a brutally self-indulgent portrait of the artist as a man hastening the inevitable end of his downward spiral.