Given the rigorous challenges Samuel Beckett’s plays set for an audience in the theater — their lack of action, their dense, elliptical, simple and/or minimalist language — translating them word for word to the film medium might seem counterproductive, if not daft. Still, it’s hard to argue with the allure of producers Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney’s Irish-U.K. Beckett on Film project, an ambitious, still-in-progress slate of features and shorts drawing on first-rank stage/screen talents both behind (Neil Jordan, Anthony Minghella, David Mamet, etc.) and before (Jeremy Irons, Julianne Moore, Juliet Stephenson, et al.) the camera. Two feature-length contribs completed to date, Conor McPherson’s “Endgame” and Patricia Rozema’s “Happy Days,” limn the expected rewards and limits of such an enterprise — intelligently mounted, finely acted, they’re nonetheless somewhat superfluous as cinema. If anything, Atom Egoyan’s version of the 1958 “Krapp’s Last Tape” should be an even more awkward fit, given text’s long silent passages and scarcely active character population of one. Yet in helmer and veteran thesp John Hurt’s virtuoso hands, results are utterly riveting.
This is, natch, highly specialized fare, rendered yet further from commercial viability by sub-feature length. Whole series has already been sold as a package to broadcasters in several countries. But among Beckett on Film’s missives so far, “Krapp” is the one that benefits most from the bigscreen’s engulfing dimensions.
Set in a single, dingy and cluttered office environment (meticulously designed by Clodagh Conroy), the long opening take rapidly will divide viewers into two camps: The spellbound and the get-me-outta-here.
First seated, then shambling pathetically about, Krapp (Hurt) appears dustier than the disorder he inhabits. His ritual mastication of one banana (whose discarded skin soon causes a pratfall), then another, heralds Beckett’s typically dour humor.
Finally exercising rusty vocal pipes, protag commences an inscrutable inventory of what we eventually realize — to heartbreaking effect — are the reel-to-reel-taped records of his own wasted, now near-spent life.
Hurt is extraordinary in a mostly reactive role as Krapp arrives at a horrible existential epiphany listening to his younger selves’ sometimes trivial, sometimes achingly idealistic musings. Thesp arguably hasn’t dug this deep into a character’s soul onscreen since his equally harrowing Everyman in “1984” 16 years ago. Credibly wizened well past his actual age (60), he channels characteristic frailty, emotional transparency and sardonic self-awareness into a devastating, note-perfect turn. The bleak universality of Beckett’s gist here — basically, Life is shite and then you die, to put it indelicately — has seldom been rendered more forcefully. Nor does the actor neglect role’s ample (if pained) comedy; he can extract a laugh from the tiniest gesture, voice modulation or eye flick.
Egoyan provides a faultless framework, unobtrusive yet masterfully thought out in film terms: Cuts, tracking and framing choices never fail to amplify text’s meaning and perf’s intensity with economical grace. Funereal blue-black production design gains a handsome sheen in Paul Sarossy’s 35mm lensing, abetted by daringly minimalist lighting. (Pic’s atmospheric murk, arresting on the bigscreen, may prove anathema to telecasters.)
As with other Beckett on Film entries, no background music is heard outside the very brief, plainly designed opening and closing credit segs.
Audio design, however, follows perf-visual leads to invest each footfall and chair squeak with a subtle but pointed resonance. Overall tech package is immaculate.