*Contains Spoilers

“I’d rather watch you fail than someone else succeed,” says a young Samuel Beckett, portrayed by Gabriel Byrne. Spoken to Aidan Gillen’s James Joyce, this scene is telling of the film “Dance First” itself. “Dance First” premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Feb. 8, 2024. 

The setup for the movie was there: an iconic historical figure, complemented by a talented cast and director, James Marsh, who previously directed the ‘Theory of Everything.” However, it has arguably missed its mark — originally made to remember this important literary figure, “Dance First” seems to be more of a theoretical conversation about the mistakes he has made and the ones he chose to take responsibility for, whether or not he directly caused them.  

The opening scene is a fabricated portrayal of Beckett accepting his Nobel Prize in Literature, muttering “Quelle catastrophe” (“What a catastrophe”) to his wife before accepting the prize and money. However, as he walks up to accept the award, without a word, Beckett instead walks through the stage and climbs a ladder off to the side.

This dramatic exit leads to an ancient, ruin-like room where he talks to another version of himself, reflecting on his past and the people he has wronged and considering where his prize money should go. The imagined version of Beckett could be a version that the screenwriter, Neil Forsyth, created to ask his own personal questions.This hypothetical conversation addresses his personal relationships with his mother, Joyce and a variety of other characters. 

Although he was widely known to be self-critical, Beckett seems to be represented in the movie as self-centered and self-torturous over the pain of others he did not cause, leading to his ultimate refusal of all glory that came with his literary success. One of the first flashbacks is his relationship with his mother, when she said “What a waste.” Although the writing is enticing, sensitive and amusing at times — a saving grace for a movie with such dark themes — the plot itself is patchy and leaves more to be desired.

The Irish author, critic and playwright, who ironically was born on Friday the 13th in 1906, is the forefather of “the theater of the absurd,” a form of theater where a play’s main goal is to represent humanity and its absurd existence.  The concept of ‘the theater of the absurd’ leads to an ultimate questioning of “Dance First” and its representation of Beckett. Is the movie supposed to be a reflection of the author’s past work and thought process on the topic of life being ridiculous and pointless, or is it a biopic that offers an over-generalized and over-dramatic point of view? Both are possible, considering that the title of the movie comes from a sentence from Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”: “dance first and think afterwards.”

Although the plot of the movie is somewhat subpar, the same cannot be said of its cast. Byrne and Fionn O’Shea (young Beckett) represent a multifaceted and emotional Beckett, with Sandrine Bonnaire giving an astounding performance as his wife.

However, all of these performances are eclipsed by Gillen, who portrays the self-banished James Joyce. This is illuminated through his line “I am the James Joyce of failed endeavor.” Both the actor and the character he portrays are unmissable, offering some well needed comic relief and the expected sarcastic comments in a movie about writers. 

An important part of the disappointment with this movie is also its editing and coloring. Although the trailer is completely in black and white, leading fans to believe the film will also be in black and white, the filmmakers decided to keep the movie in color. Despite the obvious attempt to  set a more oblique and Beckett-esque mood throughout the movie, it actually turned out quite inert.

What would Samuel Beckett think about this work? Although his idea that happiness is not important enough to be represented is well reflected in this work, he also chose to not be present to accept his Nobel Prize. He even went so far as to agreeing to be interviewed by a Swedish television program with the one requirement that they couldn’t ask him any questions. The product? A variety of clips of the Nobel winner hanging out on his balcony, looking into the abyss (and the ocean).

“Dance First” was a try at a new version of the biopic. Although it could have been more enjoyable, it was an interesting take on an already overdone genre, an okay watch that can be entertaining at times.