The title of James Marsh’s sluggish biographical drama on the life of Samuel Beckett comes from the Irish writer’s famous words, attributed here as advice to a student: “Dance first, think later.” But as the subject’s alter ego reminds him toward the end of the film, noting his lack of interest in joy: “You couldn’t wait to get through the pleasure to the pain.” Cerebral men of letters often make unrewarding screen protagonists, spending too much time in their own heads to fully engage as characters. That’s sadly the case in the capably acted but emotionally lifeless Dance First.
Best known for his nonfiction work, including Oscar winner Man on Wire and the underappreciated Project Nim, Brit director Marsh’s narrative features are more uneven. The most commercially successful of them is the Stephen Hawking bio, The Theory of Everything, while the strongest is arguably 2012’s slow-burn IRA thriller Shadow Dancer, for which even excellent reviews couldn’t scare up an audience.
The Bottom Line
Waiting for more dynamic drama.
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Closing Night)
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Fionn O’Shea, Sandrine Bonnaire, Aidan Gillen, Maxine Peake, Bronagh Gallagher, Robert Aramayo, Léonie Lojkine, Gráinne Good, Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Barry O’Connor, Caleb Johnston-Miller
Director: James Marsh
Screenwriter: Neil Forsyth
1 hour 40 minutes
Returning to Ireland with a script by Scottish TV writer Neil Forsyth, Marsh examines Beckett’s life via a handful of key relationships, with the names of the other parties providing chapter headings. But right off the bat, the fragmented approach is freighted with a cumbersome framing device.
If you think the weariest “unconventional” biopic convention is having protagonists encounter their younger selves, then it’s probably been a while since you’ve seen one in which the subject is in deep discourse with a wiser though otherwise identical alter ego.
That’s what happens here when the aging Beckett, all sourness and dourness, takes the stage in 1969 to accept a Nobel Prize for Literature that he plainly disdains. In a fantasy intended to evoke the playwright’s theater of the absurd, he bypasses the dais and scrambles up a ladder in the wings, sending a spotlight crashing as he makes his way to a cavernous stone chamber that could be a particularly austere Waiting for Godot set.
Thus we get Gabriel Byrne’s glum Sam being interrogated by Gabriel Byrne’s straight-shooter Sam about what to do with the burdensome Swedish honor and who, in a life full of people supposedly wronged by the self-castigating writer, is most deserving of the prize money. If you think that sounds like the distancing intro to an especially turgid serving of literary miserabilism, you’d be right. “You know this is going to be a journey of shame?” says one Beckett to the other. “How could it not?” Great, buckle up.
Marsh is an elegant filmmaker, and there are fragments of Beckett’s life rendered here with texture and poignancy — notably his unhappy Dublin childhood, his time with the French Resistance in Provence and his marriage to Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, played in the thorny later years with bitter self-possession by Sandrine Bonnaire in the movie’s standout performance.
But the director can’t overcome the monotony of a structure that keeps returning to those windy Byrne-on-Byrne colloquies in a bleak environment identified in press notes as the “Otherworld.” No matter how brief, those scenes suck the air out of the drama and halt the momentum, through no fault of Byrne’s.
As abstract a setup as it may be, screenwriter Forsyth’s conceit of having Beckett reflect deeply on who in his life is most deserving of the Nobel Foundation’s largesse falls apart instantly in the first chapter, “Mother.” A more thoroughly undeserving figure would be hard to find.
The young Sam (Caleb Johnston-Miller) already shows backbone, getting into a standoff with the overbearing May (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) over a poetry recital. The controlling woman’s disapproval is certainly not softened years later when she finds a notebook in which the teenage Sam (Fionn O’Shea) demonizes her in his prose. “What is this absurdity?” she fumes. He replies calmly that she would naturally assume the character is her because she alone is her whole world. When his first story is published in the experimental literary journal Transition, May sniffs distastefully, “What a waste.” (Forsyth appears to be fudging the timeline a bit here.)
The only lightness in that harsh upbringing comes from Sam’s gentle-hearted father, William (Barry O’Connor), exemplified in a kite-flying scene that would be lovely if not for the certainty that it will be back to haunt us in a belabored metaphor later on: “I willed it to stay in the sky because up there was hope and breath and freedom. And when it landed, there was nothing.”
With his mantra of “Fight, fight, fight” resounding in his head in conflict with his mother’s “What a waste,” Sam flees to Paris at the first opportunity and remains there for the rest of his life. Not that the City of Light does much to lift his spirits. While O’Shea nails the transition from a gangly, awkward youth with hunched shoulders to a man whose haunted eyes reveal a questioning intelligence, Beckett as portrayed here is a singularly morose character.
The years in which he worked as a research assistant to James Joyce (Aidan Gillen) are among the film’s stodgiest scenes, possibly because Beckett manages to attach himself to the one writer who almost makes him seem cheerful. “I am not the James Joyce of Ulysses,” announces the jaded older Irishman. “I am the James Joyce of fading glory and encroaching decay.” Forsyth’s script rarely skips an opportunity to exult in the maudlin isolation of writers.
A little spark is injected into those scenes by Joyce’s feisty wife, Nora (Bronagh Gallagher), a strong-willed country girl who will not be silenced by her starchy husband. She makes it a condition of Sam’s ongoing secretarial work for the writer that he begin squiring the couple’s schizophrenic daughter, Lucia (Gráinne Good), around the 1920s Parisian nightspots where she loves to dance. He’s too bookish to party with flappers, of course, and when he rejects Nora’s plan to force an engagement, his standing with the Joyce family instantly plummets.
A section devoted to Sam’s friendship with Alfy Péron (Robert Aramayo), who works alongside him to assist Joyce in completing Finnegan’s Wake, serves to explore his guilt when Alfy is killed in World War II. “I filled his head with dreams and nonsense and rainbows and Baudelaire,” says the older Beckett in another of those leaden Byrne-to-Byrne exchanges.
But their bond is too thinly established to draw much feeling out of that loss. More significant is Sam’s encounter during those years with the young Suzanne (Léonie Lojkine), of whom he tells Alfy: “I was a wounded bird … And she came to me with a box of straw.”
Their relationship blooms during their time together in the South of France, doing agricultural field work by day, with Sam keeping guard in the woods by night with Resistance fighters, waiting for Nazis that never come. DP Antonio Paladino’s expansive black-and-white canvas of the starry night sky (the film switches to color only in the final stretch, beginning in 1982) is among the more evocative images.
Suzanne predicts that she will never be happier than she is to have Sam to herself there, away from the distractions of Paris. Her words prove accurate in later years when Bonnaire steps into the role. Suzanne becomes a driving force behind his work, but is increasingly frustrated as their union is compartmentalized, co-existing alongside Sam’s affair with British widow Barbara Bray (Maxine Peake), a BBC script editor he meets in the 1950s.
The balancing act of those parallel relationships, which would continue for the rest of Beckett’s life, becomes the transparent basis for his 1963 one-act, simply titled Play. The characters, listed as M, W1 and W2, representing a man, his wife and his mistress, spend the duration in giant funeral urns, not unlike the dustbin-occupying Nell and Nagg in Endgame.
While brief allusions are made to the personal inspirations and meaning behind the famously cryptic Waiting for Godot, other Beckett classics like Endgame and Happy Days go unexplored. Forsyth’s script seems more intent on conjuring an idea of Beckett’s writing rather than touching on the genesis of his signature works. The fact that the relatively obscure Play gets the most attention is indicative of the script’s frustrations. And if the film were more convincing in its nods to Beckettian style, then perhaps a touch of the writer’s grim, tragicomic humor might have provided a lift. Or his trust in the unspoken.
The Play premiere is the sole encounter depicted here between Suzanne and Barbara, and Bonnaire makes her character’s withering dismissal of the other woman sting. Suzanne ultimately is more angered by Sam’s betrayal when he continues seeing Barbara even after their involvement is no longer sexual.
Rather than dipping in and out of Beckett’s life over eight decades, Dance First might have been more compelling had it focused more exclusively on the writer’s relationships with the two women, since it’s through them that the character seems most alive. Once they’re out of the picture, and both Byrne incarnations are lifted from the Otherworld to Paris for Beckett’s final years, the movie crawls toward its conclusion, finding little pathos in the decline and death of a radical literary genius. The central character has remained too much at arm’s length to foster emotional investment.