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Dance First: Finely acted Samuel Beckett biopic undermined by lit-flick cliches

Film review: Gabriel Byrne and Fionn O’Shea play the writer to great effect but the pedestrian writing bogs proceedings

Dance First
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Director: James Marsh
Cert: 12A
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Fionn O'Shea, Sandrine Bonnaire, Aidan Gillen, Maxine Peake, Bronagh Gallagher, Robert Aramayo, Léonie Lojkine, Gráinne Good
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins

Any filmmaker taking on the life of Samuel Beckett will be working under a crowd of interlocking shadows. Viewers will expect the writer’s uncompromising plays and prose to colour the drama. Legends and apocryphal yarns demand inclusion. Most tryingly, the stubborn image of the man himself – huge aquiline face scowling beneath furrowed brow – is sure to hang around most viewers’ minds. Jane Bown’s famous 1976 photograph (rightly or wrongly) stands in for his work as much as do any production stills of Endgame or Waiting from Godot.

James Marsh’s diverting treatment of the life, built around a script by Neil Forsyth, does something to dismiss such comparisons by casting an actor who looks nothing like Beckett as one version (possibly two versions) of the writer. This is no slight on Gabriel Byrne. The Dubliner approaches the role with his usual diligence and discipline. It is 1969, and Beckett is imagined at a ceremony awarding him the Nobel Prize for Literature. He walks up the aisle, but, rather than ascending the stage, takes a ladder towards a cave-like space where, splitting into two personae, he debates the worth of his own life. It would be facetious to imagine the devil and the angel that squabbled on the cat’s shoulders in Tom and Jerry. We are closer to the isolated dawdlers in Godot.

In truth, Dance First could have done with more such experimentation. We then flash back to a disappointingly linear meander through Beckett’s formative years. Awkward moments with parents in Foxrock. Adventures in Paris with James Joyce and family. Danger with fellow heroes in the French Resistance during the war. The dialogue is not particularly sharp or imaginative, but a first-class cast gives it some life. Aidan Gillen reminds us that Joyce’s uniform is every bit as familiar as Batman’s. Striding on in full statue garb, he proceeds to take on the role of convincing, if abrasive, mentor. Bronagh Gallagher doesn’t have enough to do as Nora Barnacle, but she does what she does do with characteristic salty fizz. Gráinne Good is a discovery as their emotionally fragile daughter Lucia.

Dance First, however, belongs to Fionn O’Shea as the young writer. Closer in physiognomy to Beckett – long face at home to pointed ends – the rising actor gets the sense of a coming man quietly at war with lazy convention. There is less of the reported good humour here. There is more of the stubborn fatalist.


Shot, for the most part, in crisp monochrome by Antonio Paladino, Dance First falls into some familiar errors of the literary biography. We get a few of the greatest hits. “Nothing happens ... twice,” is there. Beckett mutters “catastrophe” before not quite accepting the Nobel. Maxine Peake, playing Barbara Bray, the translator to whom Beckett was close, gets to say “it’s a masterpiece” about one of his famous works. Yet little insight is given into why the writing proved so resonant.

A paternoster of strong scenes and strong performances serve only to highlight pedestrian writing elsewhere. Sandrine Bonnaire is impressively stony as Beckett’s long-suffering wife. Gallagher and O’Shea scowl malevolently at one another. But they can’t quite shake the film out of its lit-flick cliches.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist