Dance First


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Dance First
"While offering some notion of Beckett’s feelings towards key people in his life, his works feel very underrepresented." | Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

It’s always tricky to bring the lives of literary greats to the big screen. There’s a balance to be struck between the evocation of their domestic existence and their work. Irish writer Samuel Beckett is perhaps an even more difficult challenge than most since his works were largely absurdist and with a particularly strong authorial voice.

There’s some indication that writer Neil Forsyth, who has previously written TV series including Bob Servant and Guilt, is trying to avoid a straightforward biopic, largely by a device which sees Beckett have conversations with a version of himself, but nevertheless the end result feels distinctly staid and traditional. This is especially surprising given that the director is James Marsh, who has shown a nimble aptitude for embracing experimental and edgy elements in his films, including Man On Wire and The King. Dance First is the closing night movie of San Sebastian Film Festival - where it is showing out of competition - and is a Sky Original, destined to be shown on the channel this December, the film offers up some interesting episodes from the writer’s career but never feels as though its got completely under his skin.

That is certainly not the fault of the actors, who elevate the material considerably. Beckett himself is played in his later years by Gabriel Byrne, while Fionn O’Shea takes him from teenagehood through the war, with a brief appearance by Caleb Johnston-Miller as his youngest incarnation. Byrne and O'Shea bring a similar dry wit to the author so that the move between the two feels seamless, even as the shyness that characterises Beckett's younger years gradually falls away. Beginning at the Nobel ceremony, what looks as though it may be a straightforward biopic changes tack as Beckett grabs the prize and starts climbing towards the theatre gods before encountering himself in a ‘wasteland’ of sorts - although it’s rather a shame, given the author’s greatest work, that they didn’t include a tree.

It is there that Beckett begins to have conversations with a second version of himself, the desire to give the Nobel money away marking a jumping off point into episodes of ‘shame’ from his life, mostly unfolding in monochrome, as he considers who best to give it to in order to assuage his guilt.

The first episode shows a childhood dominated by Beckett’s narcissistic mother (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) and a loving father (Barry O’Connor), whose instruction to “Fight, fight, fight” echoes through the film. In the second we dip into his relationship with James Joyce (played with good humour and charm by Aidan Gillen) and the older writer’s daughter Lucia ( and energetically entertaining turn from Gráinne Good), before heading into his long-term relationship with Suzanne (played by Léonie Lojkine and, later, Sandrine Bonnaire) and the other chief woman in his life, Barbara Bray (Maxine Peake).

While offering some notion of Beckett’s feelings towards these key people in his life, his works feel very underrepresented. He met Bray, for example, when he was working on radio play All That Fall, but it is never mentioned by name. In fact, the only play we see anything of specifically is, Play, his arguably autobiographical dissection of the tension between him and the two women in his life. While, no doubt, the act of writing is harder to evoke than a period spent in the French resistance, it’s a shame so little space is given to the work and its trajectory down the years.

Occasionally, Marsh hits upon a strong visual image, scenes at the dances Lucia insists on taking Beckett to or shared moments of understanding between him and Barbara or Suzanne. The street scenes, however, smack of unintended theatricality, as if the actors have just been waiting in the wings ready for their moment of walking past. This is particularly noticeable in the recreation of the moment when Beckett almost lost his life to the hands of a pimp. This does offer a window into the writer’s world but it is sadly quite a narrow one.

Reviewed on: 30 Sep 2023
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Dance First packshot
Biopic of author and playwright Samuel Beckett.
Amazon link

Director: James Marsh

Writer: Neil Forsyth

Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Fionn O'Shea, Sandrine Bonnaire, Léonie Lojkine, Aidan Gillen, Bronagh Gallagher, Maxine Peake, Barry O'Connor, Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Caroline Boulton, Rebecka Johnston, Gráinne Good, Caleb Johnston-Miller, Andrew Hefler, Patrik Piró,

Year: 2023

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: US


SSFF 2023
Toronto 2023

Streaming on: Sky Cinema

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