Publication: TheLondonEconomic, 11th May 2016
An audience will have a more involving experience watching That Good Night going in knowing that this was the last film of legendary actor Sir John Hurt. Death is on the horizon throughout the film, as Hurt plays terminally ill screenwriter Ralph looking to reconcile with his estranged son (Max Brown) and his partner (Erin Richards) before heading off to the great beyond.
What hobbles That Good Night is how uninvolving the whole venture feels. The score hammers home how twee and delightful the surrounds of the Portuguese villa setting, and the problems of the son don’t go beyond his successful career as a screenwriter not being exactly what he wants to be writing, and that his father has bequeathed him a Rolex. Call Me By Your Name shows that these sorts of suuny European settings and bourgeoise characters can produce an involving story, if an intensity of feeling in the relationship between characters can be conveyed better than here.
Charles Savage adapted That Good Night from the stage play by NJ Crisp, and unfortunately like many of these transfers nothing has been gained through newfound cinematic structure. Almost all of the action takes place between the villa’s back room and its swimming pool, characters milling in and out of this mundane paradise from stage left and stage right. This leads to a great dependence on dialogue which is often turgid and perfunctory, and also shows a strange predilection with abortion (mentioned in three different contexts).
Perhaps it goes without saying that Hurt, described by David Lynch as ‘the greatest actor in the world’, delivers a good performance here. His character does come across as a priggish, sexist bore at the film’s opening, and while it may be hard to sympathize with him in the opening half as That Good Night goes on he does gain a level of pathos as he finally comes to grips with a need to right wrongs.
His arc as a character is played off against The Visitor (Charles Dance), an ethereal figure ostensibly hired by Ralph to euthanize him. The rest of the supporting cast are unable to elevate the material, but the interplay between Hurt and Dance stands out. Dance also does this strange twitchy thing with his face at one stage, which felt like his first attempt to smile on camera.
Fortunately, there are only a few shots of people writing in the film, but there is a reason no great film about great screenwriters exist. It feels horrendously self-congratulatory, and regardless of how often other characters tell him how amazing a writer he is Ralph’s insights into the human condition never seem to stretch beyond parroting Dylan Thomas. I learned more about death from Hurt’s demise in Alien.
With its gentility and musings on mortality That Good Night makes for an acceptable film to have a light doze to on a Sunday afternoon. If you want to remember John Hurt as the fantastic actor he was, there is something to be gained from seeing it, though you may find yourself more wistful and moved rewatching The Elephant Man or The Plague Dogs.