'That Good Night': Film Review | Edinburgh 2017
The late John Hurt, in his final lead performance, stars in Eric Styles' play adaptation, premiering in competition at the Scottish festival.
While somewhat trifling as a work of cinema, Eric Styles' Anglo-Portuguese drama That Good Night will for many rank as a must-see simply because it features the very last lead performance by the truly great Sir John Hurt. And the widely beloved veteran — who died aged 77 in January — is in fine crusty-grouchy form as Ralph Maitland, a terminally ill British writer facing what he wryly dubs "the ultimate deadline."
Very much made with mature audiences in mind, this gentle-paced adaptation of N.J. Crisp's 1996 play builds steadily toward an irresistibly moving finale which does for Hurt what Furious 6 did for Paul Walker. The welcome (albeit intermittent) presence of Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) — as an enigmatic figure who could perhaps be a super-suave incarnation of the Grim Reaper — will further help theatrical distribution prospects for what is fundamentally a small-screen enterprise.
"I had a facility," humbly brags Maitland at one point, "I could work fast, and make it look easy." It's one of many lines here which gains inadvertent extra meaning from the context, as Hurt was always a tireless professional's professional, maintaining his Stakhanovite work rate until the very end without ever losing a scintilla of quality. Having already appeared posthumously in projects ranging from low-budget boxing saga My Name Is Lenny to Oscar-nominated Jackie, he's also set to pop up in a supporting role in spy thriller Damascus Cover, currently in postproduction.
That Good Night, however, feels every inch a valedictory project for the star, filmed after his own terminal diagnosis in 2015. But while on one level it very much revolves around Hurt — who, with more than 100 feature appearances under his belt, could play this kind of thing in his sleep — it clicks into a noticeably higher gear in the three dialogue sequences where he gets to politely square off with Dance's nameless character (identified as The Visitor in closing credits.)
Sauntering along some 37 minutes into the 92-minute running-time and sporting his trademark white linen suit, Dance presents himself as an emissary of a discreet high-society euthanasia organization which Hurt has hired to smooth his progress into the afterlife. Tellingly, only Maitland ever sees or speaks with The Visitor, in philosophically oriented chats which grapple eloquently with questions of mortality. This is a pair of contrasting but characterful, English-thespian voices — Dance a velvety baritone, Hurt a lived-in rasp — to whom most viewers would happily listen reading out the telephone directory, or the tweets of Donald Trump.
By comparison, the remainder of the scenes are pedestrian stuff, relying heavily on Hurt's raddled charisma as a world-weary misanthrope belatedly seeking to mend bridges with his semi-estranged adult son Michael (Max Brown) over the course of a sun-kissed Easter weekend. Also a writer, Michael has long struggled in the shadow of his BAFTA-winning scenarist/novelist father and is currently engaged on a dubious-sounding swashbuckler for TV. "You have talent!," fumes the leder Maitland. "You don't have to do that crap!"
That Good Night is by no means "crap," but in the hands of the journeyman Eric Styles — whose feature credits stretch back to 2000's woeful Noel Coward adaptation Relative Values — it passes muster strictly as a showcase for Hurt and Dance. Lathered with super-conventional music from composer Guy Farley, it's shot in bland, pointless widescreen by cinematographer Richard Stoddard, whose labors will delight the Portuguese tourist authorities, if no one else.
Sofia Helin (from the original Scandinavian TV series The Bridge) and Erin Richards (from Fox's Gotham) do their best with the underwritten roles of Ralph's long-suffering, much younger spouse and Michael's tougher-than-she-looks fiancée. The colorless Brown is the weak link in the ensemble, while the less said about little Noah Jupe's precocious, pint-sized, "Portuguese" pool-boy Ronaldo, the better. To be fair, Master Jupe is only at the start of his career — and if just a little of that John Hurt magic rubbed off on his slender shoulders, the kid could yet go far.
Production company: GSP Studios
Cast: John Hurt, Charles Dance, Sofia Helin, Max Brown, Erin Richards, Noah Jupe
Director: Eric Styles
Screenwriter: Charles Savage, based on the play by N.J. Crisp
Producers: Alan Latham, Charles Savage
Cinematographer: Richard Stoddard
Production designer: Humphrey Jaeger
Costume designer: Charlotte Morris
Editors: Mali Evans, Chris Timson
Composer: Guy Farley
Casting director: Francesca Bradley
Venue: Edinburgh Film Festival (Best of British / Michael Powell Award)
Sales: GSP Studios, Bubwith, Yorkshire