Dance First (2023, dir. James Marsh)

by | Nov 5, 2023

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 100 mins

UK Distributor: Sky Cinema

UK Release Date: 3 November 2023

WHO’S IN DANCE FIRST?

Gabriel Byrne, Fionn O’Shea, Aidan Gillen, Maxine Peake, Sandrine Bonnaire, Léonie Lojkine, Robert Aramayo, Bronagh Gallagher, Lisa Dwyer Hogg, Barry O’Connor, Gráinne Good, Caroline Boulton

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

James Marsh (director), Neil Forsyth (writer), Michael Livingstone, Viktória Petrányi and Tom Thostrup (producers), Antonio Paladino (cinematographer), David Charap (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

The life of renowned Irish writer Samuel Beckett (Byrne)…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON DANCE FIRST?

Much like its main subject, Dance First initially sets itself up as something rather unconventional. The opening scene, set at an awards ceremony where acclaimed writer Samuel Beckett (Gabriel Byrne) is being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, suddenly takes a turn for the absurd when a begrudging Beckett climbs up the stage and into a purgatory realm, not unlike the one in his signature play Waiting for Godot. There, he encounters another version of him – also played by Byrne – and spends most of the rest of the film conversing with this imaginary doppelganger.

Unfortunately, it is perhaps the only part of the film that actually does something even a little bit outside the box. The rest of director James Marsh’s film is as straightforward a biopic as they come, only without nearly as much intrigue or even as whimsy as the life and work of Samuel Beckett might suggest.

That opening scene between both Becketts serves as the film’s framing device, with the main Beckett deciding who he’s going to donate his prize money to by revisiting several important moments and figures from his life. First, there’s his rather miserable childhood in Ireland, where his domineering narcissist of a mother (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) cruelly dismisses his writing talents, just after his more loving father (Barry O’Connor) passes away. Then, there’s the time when Beckett (played in these flashbacks by Fionn O’Shea), whilst living in Paris, acquaints himself with fellow writer James Joyce (Aidan Gillen) and his family, including his mentally unstable daughter Lucia (Gráinne Good). There’s also that period when he and friend Alfy (Robert Aramayo) volunteer for the French Resistance when the city becomes occupied by the Nazis, which is when he also meets his future wife Suzanne (Léonie Lojkine). Finally, there’s when an older Beckett (Byrne again) and Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire) go through their own difficulties with his rising fame and subsequent affair with BBC script editor Barbara Bray (Maxine Peake).

Though competently made, with the stark black-and-white cinematography – switching to colour only for its final section, set during Beckett’s final years – giving it the look and almost the feel of a cookie-cutter biopic from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Dance First is narratively flat. The script, by TV writer Neil Forsyth in his feature debut, is pragmatic to a fault, for it simply lays out all these significant events from Samuel Beckett’s life without really getting into why they are so important, at least within the fantastical context that’s established with that framing device. Since many of them pass largely incident-free, with little emotional weight added on for dramatic effect, it feels as though you’re just watching a series of inconsequential events happen rather than be sucked into the narrative that’s loosely connecting them.

What’s more, it’s hard to make a formidable connection with the characters, which ends up leaving you caring even less. Beckett himself is very closed off from his emotions throughout the film, more often than not making him seem like a miserable presence that’s hard to sympathise with, even when he does endure some loss throughout. Other characters, from Aidan Gillen’s interpretation of James Joyce to even Beckett’s own wife Suzanne, are stuck with inconsistent arcs that often leave you frustrated with how little they matter or, slightly worse, make sense. Forsyth’s script rarely allows these characters the luxury of being lively or at the very least interesting on the screen, a fatal flaw that dries up any lingering intrigue and leaves it feeling rather empty on the inside.

The intention, of course, is to match Beckett’s absurdist writing style, which similarly went in all sorts of strange directions with an unmistakable slightness. However, unlike a Beckett piece, Dance First doesn’t have that underlying wit or a sense that there’s a method to the madness. It’s simply hoping that its unusual structure and slightly surrealist style can carry itself through the conventional biopic patterns, but you obviously need so much more than that for any film, whether it’s a biopic or not, to work in a cinematic format. Instead, because it is so densely told and rather dreary in its tone, the film is an unfortunate bore, one that leaves Beckett admirers without much further insight into the writer, while anyone less familiar with his work will come away knowing little more about him (especially when his multiple writing achievements, including his plays and novels, are barely given any attention during the entirety of the film).

It’s also telling that Dance First opens with on-screen text along the lines of “A Film of Samuel Beckett” which, after Carol Morley’s far superior artist interpretation Typist Artist Pirate King, feels exceptionally dishonest, and does not do anything to further the actual Samuel Beckett’s legacy.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Dance First is a biopic of Samuel Beckett that is pragmatic to a fault, with an unengaging narrative that seeks to replicate Beckett’s absurdist style but doesn’t capture the underlying wit or intrigue of the writer’s actual works, making it a cinematic bore that’s unlikely to win over any Beckett converts.

Two out of five stars

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