Despite its tired and conventional narrative, Sir John Hurt packs an emotional punch with his final leading role in THAT GOOD NIGHT
Sir John Hurt’s final leading role in THAT GOOD NIGHT packs a quiet emotional pathos for many reasons. Not only does the prolific and talented actor bring nuance and class to this otherwise sentimental drama about an ageing screenwriter preparing to face death, but Hurt was also battling his own terminal illness at the time, making his final role more poignant than ever.
Based on the 1996 stage play written by N.J Crisp, THAT GOOD NIGHT tells the story of Ralph (Sir John Hurt), a once-famous screenwriter now in his seventies, living in the Algarve. Terminally ill, Ralph sets out to reconcile with his estranged son, Michael (Max Brown), while keeping his illness secret from his wife/former-nurse, Anna (Sofia Helin) in order not to burden her as he goes “into that good night”.
Those familiar with Crisp’s play will know THAT GOOD NIGHT is essentially about facing one’s mortality. Accustomed to getting his own way, Ralph wants to die with control and dignity and so seeks the help of the ‘Society’, a mysterious group who can expedite his death. But as Ralph approaches “that good night”, he grows to see the errors of his ways and begins to realise that there are, in fact, plenty of reasons for trying to stick around a while longer.
Yet while Eric Styles directs with a steely professionalism to deliver a film that is visually gorgeous thanks to its stunning setting in Portugal and warm colour palette, THAT GOOD NIGHT ultimately lacks any natural or authentic sense of heart. Instead of offering a nuanced exploration into life and death, Charles Savage’s screenplay feels tired and conventional. Even the supporting roles including Ralph’s wife Anna (Sofia Helin), his son Michael (Max Brown) and Michael’s girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards) are sorely underwritten, seeming to exist to purely react to Ralph’s caustic bluntness and differing moods.
Thankfully, Hurt comes through to deliver a capable performance as the cantankerous, rude and misogynistic Ralph. Despite being a difficult man, constantly fluctuating between prickliness and nastiness, Hurt’s natural screen charisma and energy ensures Ralph maintains our attention throughout despite the otherwise predictable plot and maudlin tone.
The introduction of Charles Dance as the ‘Angel of Death’ also helps to add to the dynamic with the exchanges between Dance and Hurt giving the film heart and depth as life’s big questions are raised. Here, the two share a wonderful rapport and you can’t help but wish that THAT GOOD NIGHT had been a two-hander instead of a padded out family drama.
That said, THAT GOOD NIGHT is a fitting tribute to a great actor. The film serves as a sort of homage to Hurt, and while it is a slightly disappointing swansong, it is elevated by both Hurt’s presence and his loss. A bittersweet final performance from a screen legend.
THAT GOOD NIGHT is released in UK cinemas from 11 May 2018.
Donna is the Founder and Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she works as a digital marketing specialist, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage and The Reviews Hub. Loves Formula 1, prosecco and life.