As it turns out, Gabriel Byrne’s new film about Samuel Beckett is not everyone’s cuppa tea. I am not surprised, however, that those who do appreciate this black-and-white journey into the playwright’s past are from across the pond, while those who throw bricks at it all live here in the good ol’ USA. Odd, isn’t it? And all these lovely reviewers in Ireland and England have made me want to see this film even MORE. I thank them! I also recommend watching the video review at the end. A film critic talking about a movie they are happily surprised by is more fun that you might think!
A Waltz through Some Reviews
Dance First review – Samuel Beckett’s life given the high gloss Hollywood treatment
Vivid portrait of the great playwright of inertia points up the contrast with his real-life romantic entanglements and daring work for the French resistance
Director James Marsh has boldly, maybe even sacrilegiously, given us a Hollywoodised biopic of Samuel Beckett. It starts with Beckett surreally escaping the Nobel ceremony to talk in private with a doppelganger confessor – a breezier, more worldly self in a rollneck sweater and jacket – and glumly wondering to whom in his life he should penitentially give the prize money, a guilt list which ushers in the flashbacks.
It isn’t hard to imagine what the man himself would have said about this movie, but though a little hammy, it is well acted and tells the story with verve, tackling the paradox of Beckett’s bleak fictional universe of stymied inaction and his dramatic real life of service in the French resistance and romantic intrigue. There’s a very thoughtful, weighted performance from Gabriel Byrne as Beckett, austere and droll, with Fionn O’Shea as the younger man, supercilious and idealistic. Sandrine Bonnaire plays his wife Suzanne, on whom he cheated with translator and critic Barbara Bray, played by Maxine Peake. . .
Screenwriter Neil Forsyth avoids the “fail better” cliche and gives us instead a fragment of Godot in the title. The resulting film is watchable and persuasive, with a spoonful of sugar in the melancholy final image.
Dance First review: Samuel Beckett biopic starring Gabriel Byrne shows the writer’s genius as well as his messy private life and failings
When Samuel Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, his partner Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil supposedly said “quelle catastrophe”.
In James Marsh’s biopic Dance First, the quote is ascribed to Beckett himself, but whichever one of them said it, the meaning was clear: fame, already a problem, was about to overwhelm this modest and rather bourgeois couple.
Gabriel Byrne might not sound like ideal casting as the last modernist, but he sinks into the role remarkably well, and Marsh’s film opens at that fateful moment when the Nobel committee shone a bright light on this most private of men.
In Dance First, he recoils from the acclaim as if from a bee sting and retreats to the darkest recesses of his mind to begin a conversation with. . . well, himself. In an overarching plot device, two Becketts discuss the finer ethical points of the writer’s life in a series of character-based vignettes: it’s not as annoying as it sounds. . .
Beckett has often been depicted as a modernist saint, a latter-day stoic staring death cooly in the face. But he was also a person, with a messy private life and moral imperfections he himself regretted.
Without Suzanne’s tireless championing, we might not have heard of Beckett’s plays, however brilliant, but he brought her much unhappiness. Their complex relationship is at the heart of this film, which reaches its most poignant pitch when they are old, as Sam and Suzanne (played now by Sandrine Bonnaire) honestly confront their mutual shortcomings.
This is an honourable attempt at a Beckett biopic, well cast and not overplayed.
Dance First: Gabriel Byrne takes Samuel Beckett to the wastelands and beyond in new Sky Cinema biopic
“It’s the place we all go to when life drives us there,” explains Samuel Beckett (Gabriel Byrne) to long-time lover, BBC radio producer and journalist Barbara Bray (Maxine Peake) of ‘the wasteland’, the setting for his most famous play, Waiting For Godot.
While famously “nothing happens – twice” in Godot, thankfully Beckett’s own life story is a tad more incident-packed. Directed by Oscar-winner James Marsh (Man on Wire) and shot largely in black and white, this entertaining biopic chronicles the eventful existence of the Nobel Prize-winning Irish literary genius via a series of imagined interactions with his future self.
These self-reflective vignettes occur within Beckett’s own personal wasteland, an appropriately tragicomic psychological stock-take in which he converses with another, wiser version of himself, provoked by what should have been his greatest triumph. . .
In reality, Beckett accepted his Nobel Prize but did not travel to Stockholm to collect it (a concession to Suzanne, perhaps): here writer Neil Forsyth uses artistic license to have our anti-hero marching onto the stage at the awards ceremony, where he then shocks the audience by eschewing an acceptance speech in favour of scaling a ladder into the gods, clambering into a passageway leading to the aforementioned wastelands where his journey of self-reflection begins.
It’s fun to see Gabriel Byrne playing against himself in these scenes, which tease out the playwright’s inner conflicts and highlight his feelings of guilt and shame over those he feels he has wronged, from his mother to Lucia, Alfy and the two women in his life – both of whom stayed with Beckett long after they became aware of each other’s existence.
Film review: Dance First is a Beckett biopic that’s no deadener
Dance First: A Life Of Samuel Beckett: The film charts the Irish writer Samuel Beckett’s life, from his time as a fighter for the French Resistance during the Second World War to his literary rise to winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. Starring Gabriel Byrne and Aidan Gillen.
That the film will be an austere, brooding affair by way of paying homage to its complex hero is a given, but Fionn O’Shea and Gabriel Byrne are both terrific at hinting at Beckett’s mordant sense of humour, and not least when the writer is pointing up his own failings.
Beckett aficionados will likely wish for more insight into the author’s craft and the business of transferring that singular mind to the page, but this potted biography is largely concerned with Beckett’s personal relationships, and how they might have come to colour his work.
It’s a conceit that works, and especially during those parts of the film that deal with Beckett’s calculating hero-worship of Joyce, and his unexpected willingness — given his long-established mono-maniacal egoism — to devote himself to the cause of the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation of Paris.
It may be true, as Suzanne wearily observes of their relationship, that she and Beckett were ‘not made for victory’, but Dance First is a literary biopic that deserves all the garlands that come its way.
Mark Kermode is a leading UK film critic who is never afraid to tell you what he really thinks. And he seems honestly surprised by how much he liked this film! Watch him talk about it–great stuff!
I’m working on a posting of Gabriel’s recent interviews, in which he discusses his work on Dance First and lots of other things, too. So stay tuned for that! heart