Director: Eric Styles
Cast: John Hurt, Charles Dance, Max Brown, Sofia Helin
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When is a film made by better by its lead star? Whenever that film stars John Hurt. The late, great actor was one of the Britain’s finest, capable of thundering anger, waspish humour and gentle vulnerability. In the case of Jackie, in which Hurt appeared briefly as a priest, it helped turn an excellent biopic into a masterpiece. In the case of That Good Night, it elevates a middling drama into something deeply moving.
Based on a play by NJ Crisp, Eric Styles’ film whisks us off to Portugal where famed writer Ralph (Hurt) is living out his retirement. He’s full of himself, and likes it best when other people’s ears are full of his words, so he talks at (not with) everyone at every given opportunity. He winds up his young wife, Anna (Sofia Helin). He lectures his estranged son, Michael (Max Brown), and he insults Michael’s girlfriend, Cassie (Erin Richards).
It’s no surprise, then, that most of them don’t really like him (although his wife cheerfully tolerates his sarcastic ways). It’s perhaps equally little surprise that Ralph would quite like to slip away at the end of his days, without any fuss (and without any emotional resolutions). But the closer he gets to That Good Night, the more he wants to rage and rage against the dying of the light. And so the stage is set for a Scrooge-like tale of a nasty man learning to savour the good things in life.
That the film takes its title from Dylan Thomas’ poem, which features heavily in the final third of the movie, gives you a clue of how cheesy you should expect the script to be – the dialogue is as cliched as the sun-dappled visuals that come right out of a holiday home brochure. But Hurt’s acerbic presence is the perfect contrast to that sentimental tone, and it’s a delight just to watch him rail against everything around him. Brown and Richards have the harder job to do, both trying to bring some sweet warmth to the tale without over-tweeing things, but the real challenge is attempting to match Hurt’s level; he’s transcendent here, finding tenderness in the soft centre that emerges from his crabby exterior, an arc that’s predictable, but (in a lovely touch) comes as a total surprise to the man in question.
The result is a slight piece, one that only really comes to life when Hurt is joined on screen by Charles Dance (as an enjoyably clinical man in a white suit, who heralds and potentially orchestrates Ralph’s desired departure). But there’s nuance in Hurt’s performance that overcomes (and outshines) the material he’s been given, leaving you wishing Hurt had more lead roles in his career, and mesmerised by his velvety voice, as he recites poetry with the kind of wispy gravitas that lingers profoundly in the air.