Samuel Beckett is one of the few people, alongside Samuel Johnson and Ludwig Wittgenstein, about whom I want to know everything. There’s James Knowlson’s 1996 biography Damned to Fame, and How It Was, Anne Atik’s intimate memoir of Beckett as a family friend, and Beckett’s Letters, the fourth and final volume of which was published in 2016.
Now there’s a biopic of Beckett, covering his long life in 100 minutes – starring Gabriel Byrne. It’s directed by James Marsh, who made the documentaries Man on Wire and Project Nim, and drew such touching performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in his 2014 film about Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything.
Dance First opens as the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded to Beckett in Sweden in 1969. Formally dressed, he sits uncomfortably in the audience with his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire). It’s not a strong start. Beckett wasn’t there; his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, stood in for him. “Quel catastrophe!” Beckett mutters, his famous response on hearing the news. Then he goes up to the rostrum, snatches the envelope from the King of Sweden (unthinkable, Beckett was ever courteous), and climbs up a pole on the side of the stage, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the crowd gasping.
Enough? He then emerges mysteriously, through a tunnel, into a huge, primitive stone structure of some kind. To be explained later? Not really, it’s a disused quarry in Hungary – where the film was made – recruited for general atmospherics. There he meets himself, Samuel Beckett Two (also Byrne), more casually dressed, and the pair discuss giving away the prize money. “You know this is going to be a journey through your shame?” says Beckett Two. “Isn’t everything?” rejoins Beckett One, and off we go, as they compere us through the key scenes of his life, titled consecutively “Mother”, “Lucia”, “Alfy (and Suzanne)”, “Suzanne (and Barbara)”, and “La Fin”, for which the film switches from black and white into colour.
In “Mother”, May Beckett (Lisa Dwyer Hogg) is almost insanely harsh to her child; his father urges him with his dying breath “fight!” In “Lucia”, young Beckett (Fionn O’Shea, not bad) ingratiates himself with James Joyce’s family in Paris. Joyce (Aidan Gillen) advises him that it’s not what one writes but how that matters: “We must write dangerously, Beckett!” Bullying Nora (Bronagh Gallagher) forces Beckett to take out her crazy daughter Lucia (Gráinne Good), who then has a breakdown when he refuses her hand in marriage.
“Alfy (and Suzanne)” will mystify those not familiar with Beckett’s biography, since it isn’t explained who his great pal Alfy (Robert Aramayo) is: Alfred Péron, whom Beckett met when he came to Dublin as a lecturer. He seems to have been brought in to show Beckett had friends. Young Suzanne is played by Léonie Lojkine, who is preposterously beautiful and very young (Suzanne was six years older than Beckett).
In “Suzanne (and Barbara)” she is played by Bonnaire, while Byrne takes over Beckett. Knowlson treated Beckett’s long-standing relationship with the radio producer, critic and translator Barbara Bray, who moved to Paris to be near him, with discretion. Here it’s thoroughly expounded, culminating in a scene between Suzanne and Barbara at the premiere of Play – Beckett’s excruciating drama of adultery and one of the few of his works cited in the film. Bray is played by Maxine Peake, whom Marsh cast as Hawking’s second wife, Elaine.
The ailing old Becketts meet on a bench in Paris (accordion music). “Fight! Fight! Fight!” says one. “Don’t be so dramatic,” the other retorts. Suzanne and Beckett agree they owe each other everything. The Becketts meet in the retirement home Le Tiers Temps. Remember telling a student “dance first, think later”? asks Beckett Two. “It’s later now,” Beckett One replies. “It always was,” the other says, a lazy flip.
Dance First, written by Neil Forsyth, could not have been made by anyone with any true understanding of Beckett and his work. Perhaps biopics of writers are doomed to fail, as writing as an occupation is simply not cinematic.
Beckett himself never consented to be interviewed formally but, by some mishap, he was filmed for Swedish television at the time of the Nobel. Outside a beachside hotel room in Tunisia, he stays mute, resisting the camera with all his being, as the waves lap. Easily found on YouTube, this video lasts just 1 minute 28 seconds. It’s a tremendously Beckettian work in itself, worth far more than this catastrophe.
“Dance First” is in cinemas from 3 November
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts