If you're the sort of person who buys into a Samuel Beckett work based on the author's name alone, you may want to check your pretensions at the door, or stay away from Beckett on Film altogether. In a daring move, all 19 of Beckett's plays were committed to film by some of the greatest directors and actors working in cinema. The results are finally on DVD.
Critics have balked, claiming that the interpretation of the directors has killed Beckett's mutable and abstract texts. Well, the critics will just have to get over the false notion that they know the work better than any actor or director, and look at what has actually been presented.
The boldest work is done with Beckett's most difficult material. Neil Jordan helms Julianne Moore in Not I, a work that onstage features nothing more than a mouth, tightly lit, speaking a staccato confession. At first, Jordan seems to violate the play's precept of anonymity, showing us Moore sitting down in a chair. But then, as he cuts, cuts, cuts among five different angles on the mouth, the viewer is devastated by the work's emotional impact in a way that is unknown to all but front-row witnesses of the stage version.
Act Without Words II, a pantomime, is transformed by director Edna Hughes from a slight footnote of Beckett-ology into a full-fledged work of art. Catastrophe, which features John Gielgud's last performance, is of the chillingly-cold Beckett style; while Happy Days, essentially an hour-and-a-half-long monologue by a woman buried in sand, is turned into a naturalistic tour de force by actress Rosaleen Linehan.
Missteps? Certainly, and surprisingly in Beckett's most "playlike" dramas. Atom Egoyan allows (or insists upon?) a tear from John Hurt at the end of the otherwise sublime Krapp's Last Tape. The already harrowing Endgame is rendered almost intolerably rancid and grotesque. And one of the simplest plays in Beckett's canon - Waiting for Godot - suffers most from its translation to film. By watching the proceedings on screen instead of onstage, the play loses the vaudeville qualities that have made it bearable for generations of audiences. But the fact that there is not a bad performance to be found in this collection proves that Beckett does not belong to critics who wish to keep his words either on the page or on the screen. Beckett belongs to the actors.