There aren’t many actors who can boast as prolific or complete a career as the great John Hurt.
He may have starred in blockbusters including Alien, Indiana Jones 4 and the Harry Potter franchise, but the backbone of his work consists of intense, powerful character-based roles: The Elephant Man, 1984, 10 Rillington Place. While his final film doesn’t quite live up to those masterpieces, it’s a reminder of the talent that existed even in the Oscar winner’s final days.
Rather than simply fade away, Hurt’s last on-screen appearance is a striking, occasionally shocking portrayal of an ageing writer named Ralph. Despite living in a Portuguese villa, he’s far from a serene retiree – he’s an abrasive, outspoken old man who’s quick to insult anyone in his general vicinity.
It’s a character the veteran star really sinks his teeth into, combining cynical rage with morbid terror as we learn his days are numbered; he must overcome his penchant for cruelty to make peace with his son (Max Brown) and provide for his wife (Sofia Helin). It’s a portrait of a man hastily attempting to mend the broken parts of his life, only realising the pain he’s caused when it’s almost too late.
Had it not been for Hurt, That Good Night would be half the film it is. The dialogue often needlessly spells things out, while Brown struggles to hold his own when clashing with his on-screen father. The final act, meanwhile, is frustratingly neat, wrapping things up in a manner that doesn’t befit the complications that came before.
Despite his age and real life illness, Hurt hoists the film on his back, ensuring it’s more than the sum of its parts. His portrayal of physical deterioration is impactful, even a little upsetting given the context. He is helped by the appearance of fellow thesp Charles Dance, playing a mysterious visitor who only Ralph sees; the duo are clearly delighted to be working together.
Partly owing to the circumstances surrounding its release, That Good Night’s flaws seem inconsequential beside the power of its leading man. While not his finest 90 minutes, it’s a reminder of just how good he was.