Adam Matthews finds a crooked effigy to a renowned author.
For all its musings, the Beckett biopic ignobly struts its stuff, tawdry and business-like, to a sedated beat. Director James Marsh and writer Neil Forsyth – the former helmed 2014 Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything – blitz through the life of the acclaimed Irish writer Samuel Beckett with no real insight into the writer. Rather than engage on what made Beckett tick and explore the genesis of his canon, the film is a pseudo biopic that fails to capture the Beckettian spirit or the complexities of the author. What hope may shine through the dominant monochrome is effectively stifled in this clichéd reimagining of Beckett’s life.
The narrative unfolds in 1969 during the Nobel Prize ceremony, where Beckett, portrayed by Gabriel Byrne, reluctantly accepts the literary honour. Muttering “What a catastrophe” to his wife, Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire), he forgoes the podium and climbs a stage-side ladder into a cavernous latent space, meeting a mirror image of Beckett. This setup, reminiscent of “Waiting for Godot,” is the first in many footfalls that fall short of capturing Beckett’s complexity. The two Becketts decide to award the Nobel Prize money to a more deserving figure from their past, embarking on a journey through their shame, peppering in observations and commentary on occasion.
From here, there are five acts depicted in chronological order: “Mother”, “Lucia”, “Alfy (and Suzanne)”, “Suzanne (and Barbara)”, and “La Fin”, for which the film switches from black and white into colour. The initial act delves into Beckett’s early life in suburban Dublin, offering a glimpse into his family dynamics and his strained relationship with his mother, though it’s a highly fictionalized dramatic account. After a pivotal moment with his father, William, Beckett, as a young man, says his final goodbyes on his father’s deathbed. His father’s dying words, “fight, fight, fight,” become a recurring motif in the film.
The story then shifts to Beckett in his twenties in Paris, where he secures a role as an assistant to James Joyce (Aidan Gillen), featuring intellectually charged exchanges between them. But the mentorship ends when Beckett rejects a proposal from the Joyces’ schizophrenic flapper daughter Lucia (a role that treats the mental illness quite flagrantly). This is also a reoccurring trend of Beckett’s magnetism where romantic partners can’t help but be drawn to the morose author; they certainly know but an audience certainly doesn’t and it gives these undercooked romantic developments an unctuous texture in service of plot progression and not character.
The subsequent episode centres on Beckett’s influential friendship with Alfy Péron, another protegé of Joyce, and his tumultuous, love-hate relationship with Suzanne. Suzanne’s character evolves from a bright, adoring young woman, played by Léonie Lojkine, into a more embittered devotee, portrayed by Bonnaire. Alfy’s death burdens Beckett with unexplained guilt which well and truly feels unexplored and paltry as, like other aspects of the film, it is almost a secondary thought. His guilt is only compounded further with his affair with translator and critic Barbara Bray (Maxine Peake) doesn’t ease this guilt but doesn’t break his bond with Suzanne either. The latter half of the plot when it switches perspective to Byrne’s Beckett and his love triangle between Suzanne and Barbara are where the film begins to redeem itself somewhat.
The film’s standout performance is Bonnaire’s, displaying strength in her domestic disputes and literary disagreements. However, their arguments regarding Beckett’s work fail to be compelling as there is little in the way of presentation of the work itself besides a few name-dropped titles and a brief glimpse of a scene from his 1963 one-act play “Play”. Regrettably, it misses the mark in encapsulating the profound allure of Beckett’s intellectual and linguistic prowess, offering only cursory references to their intricate, avant-garde nature without delving into the depth that truly captivated the discerning sensibilities of its audience.
Dance First appears to lack a genuine comprehension of Beckett and his literary contributions where the actors are burdened with the insurmountable task of filling in the gaps of a man’s lifetime in a tight ninety minutes. It raises the question of whether biographical portrayals of writers inherently face challenges, as the act of writing, being fundamentally introspective, may resist cinematic translation. But one knows that this is categorically false with such films as Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Jane Campion’s Bright Star or Wim Wenders’ Hammett. If liberties are going to be taken with fact and chronology in favour of a sort of quasi-colloquial dramatic narrative, then you’d expect there to be a bit more pathos from a figure more deserving than Sam Beckett. Instead, this story of the decline and death of such a radical genius is a glib sweep through Beckett’s life that remains too aloof to foster any sincere emotional sentiment and too dumbed down for thoughtful discussion. The framework of something like Mishima may have serviced this film far better than what was produced.
By the film’s conclusion, it does manage to redeem itself somewhat but the weight of knowing what came before hinders it. Would a longer runtime redeem it? Probably not. Would a more concentrated and tighter exploration of one aspect of the author’s life like the Suzanne-Barbara love triangle ease the burden of the aforementioned problems? Absolutely! Silence in Beckett’s work has always been a substitute for language, a literature of wordlessness; Dance First, on the other hand, says so much but yet so little. Who knows, perhaps this is a lesson for any future Beckett biopics.
Dance First is in cinemas from 3rd November.