UK Release Date: 11th May 2018
Runtime: 92 minutes
Director: Eric Styles
Writer: Charles Savage
Starring: John Hurt, Sofia Helin, Max Brown, Erin Richards, Charles Dance
Synopsis: An award-winning novelist and screenwriter tries to get his affairs in order as he moves into the final years of his life and his mental and physical faculties begin to slip away.
There’s a weirdness to watching a posthumously released new performance by a legendary actor. It’s like watching a melancholy echo of that person as much as it is watching a character. That is heightened in the case of That Good Night – the last leading role filmed by John Hurt before his death in 2017 – which takes on the notion of death head-on. It’s a story that is given extra depth and pathos by the real-life passing of its star and, indeed, it’s Hurt’s class that saves a movie lacking a clear arsenal of ideas.
Hurt plays Ralph Maitland, who is the picture of privilege. He’s an award-winning novelist and screenwriter living out his golden years with his much younger wife Anna (Sofia Helin) at an idyllic home in the Algarve. After receiving some bad news from his doctor, Ralph makes contact with his estranged son Michael (Max Brown) in an attempt to build bridges. When Michael brings his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards) along, Ralph becomes irascible and cantankerous. Soon after, Ralph is visited by a mysterious man dressed all in white (Charles Dance), whom he has seemingly hired for a unique task.
Without the solid work of Hurt in the lead role, That Good Night could have been a rather frustrating movie. Its attempts to take on the issue of the right to die see the heavyweight talents of Hurt and Dance sparring together, which presents a far more interesting setup than much of the film, with Brown and Richards largely failing to make an impact in underwritten supporting roles. This is a movie that would have been better if they had decided to focus on the issue at its heart rather than spending so much time indulging in whimsy.
The film pivots around halfway through and does shift its focus more clearly towards the central issue, helped by a neat narrative reversal that genuinely wrong-foots expectations. After resisting for a while, it does invoke the Dylan Thomas poem from which it gets its title, though this feels like a work that has been referenced so often that it lacks power. Thankfully, Hurt fills the vacuum with a performance that sees his character travel a considerable distance from the grumpy misogynist he is at the beginning of the story to the more hopeful human being he transpires to be.
That Good Night is a strange, throwaway movie. It deals with weighty subjects, but is mostly lighter than air. Its secret weapon, though, is the all-time great whose name is on the poster. Hurt brings a real sense of character and of scope to a story that could easily have been about a wealthy man slowly dying in a remote corner of Portugal. Instead, Ralph feels like a genuine human and, when the film concludes with a touching dedication to Hurt himself, it feels as if director Eric Styles is thanking his leading man for being the only reason his movie works at all.
Pop or Poop?
That Good Night is a lightweight drama populated mostly by characters too wealthy and privileged to be of much interest. However, John Hurt’s final leading performance showcases exactly the level of restrained, subtle gravitas that we have grown to expect over the course of his legendary career.
It’s thanks to Hurt that this film stays above water. He has a compelling eye for finding the elements of this character that are compelling, rather than just annoying, and it is these elements that he amplifies to great effect.
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