Most biopics give us a loose facsimile of a famous person reenacting headline moments. Those that transcend the general flatness of the genre — now including BBC America’s “A Poet in New York” — conjure up the person in the smaller moments of his or her life. They depend almost entirely on a leading actor who captures some essence of the person in between the familiar, obituary-worthy events. The actors interpret as much if not more than they imitate.
The first outstanding biopic that comes to mind is “Lincoln,” not surprisingly. Daniel-Day Lewis seemed to make Abraham Lincoln known to us, even though we had little to compare him to. Day-Lewis conveyed something so authentic, you finished the movie feeling you’d spent time with the president himself. Michael Douglas performed a similar feat as Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra,” and so did both Toby Jones and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote.
Playing Dylan Thomas in “A Poet in New York,” which premieres Wednesday night at 8, Tom Hollander joins the exclusive club of actors who seem to live and breathe as the famous person they’re playing. Hollander is remarkable as the South Wales-born poet who died in 1953 at 39, evoking a real, three-dimensional man so much more than a literary legend. You feel the actor inhabiting Thomas without judgment, without self-consciousness, baring the inner turbulence, the unmet hunger, the selfishness, the childishness, the arrogance, and the self-destructiveness all swimming around in his mind. It’s a riveting turn.
Hollander captures Thomas’s descent and death with intensity, and he is not afraid to make Thomas quite insufferable and ungracious along the way. But some of his most powerful moments come when he reads Thomas’s work aloud. When we feel the power of Thomas’s poetry, and we hear the musical heart of his delivery, and we see his deep-seated connection to the themes of his work, the movie’s stakes get higher.
Everything else about “A Poet in New York,” which is timed to air alongside the centennial of Thomas’s birth, is small and underwhelming. That sounds like a damning complaint, but the limits of the script, by Andrew Davies, actually benefit Hollander’s performance to some extent. Without having to compete with an elaborate narrative, Hollander is able to focus on the poet’s presence – his breathing problems, his fading attention span, his boredom, his small betrayals.
The film is set in 1953, and it spans Thomas’s visit to New York for a set of readings, after which he is supposed to fly to California to work with Igor Stravinsky. While in New York, though, he collapses, after drinking himself into stupor after stupor both with and without his two New York handlers, friend John Malcolm Brinnin (Ewen Bremner) and lover Liz Reitell (Phoebe Fox). He dies in a New York hospital, embittered and undignified, his fame ensured.