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Posts Tagged ‘That Good Night’

Oh, the wonders of the internet age – up until very recently I had no idea that there even was a record for the most on-screen deaths, let alone who actually held the thing. But apparently so – if you trust Wikipedia, at least – and the holder is… we pause for effect… the late John Hurt, apparently. What, really? Not Sean Bean? Not Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee? Apparently so: forty-three on-screen deaths, the last time anyone bothered to check. Does this list include the last film that he made, Eric Styles’ That Good Night? I suspect that revealing the answer would constitute a spoiler, but it would not be entirely inappropriate, given that (as the title suggests) this film is largely about the ultimate moment of mortality.

Hurt plays Ralph Maitland, a brilliant and celebrated novelist and screenwriter resident somewhere very photogenic in the Algarve, with his rather younger wife Anna (the Swedish actress Sofia Helin, whose stellar performances in The Bridge finally seem to be translating into international stardom). Ralph is, not to put too fine a point on it, a crabby old git, whom his wife and housekeeper seem improbably fond of as the film begins. Then, and the lack of subtlety with which this is handled makes one wish the film had been written by an award-winning screen-writer rather than simply being about one, Ralph has a hospital appointment at which bad news is delivered.

Not bothering to tell Anna, Ralph’s reaction is to get in touch with his son Michael (Max Brown), as there are apparently things which must be said. Nevertheless he is rather put out when Michael turns up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), with whom he instantly fails to hit it off, jeopardising his opportunity to say his piece. Time is an issue, as Ralph has plans which he plans to implement sooner rather than later.

So, a little background on this slightly obscure film (it had a marginal release even in the local art-houses, and I only caught it at the local classics and catch-up cinema, the Ultimate Picture Palace, where it played on a Saturday night to an audience of about half a dozen). Apparently it started off as a stage play of the same name by NJ Crisp (probably best known as a TV writer), created as a vehicle for Donald Sinden to act in alongside his son. That was back in 1996; quite why it has taken over twenty years for it to reach the screen is probably down to the glacial way in which low-budget film production happens.

Nevertheless, I think this is pertinent, because I get the sense that screenwriter Charles Savage has not adapted Crisp’s play quite as comprehensively as he might. There’s nothing concrete in That Good Night to suggest anything other than a present-day setting, but there’s something about the attitudes and behaviour of the characters that can’t help feeling very, very dated: if the film was set in the seventies, it might be a bit more credible.

The theatrical origins of the piece are never much in doubt, anyway. You can see where they’ve tried to open the story out by including various scenes of people going to the shops and what-have-you, but the majority of it takes place within about twenty feet of John Hurt’s patio, for this is where the meat of the film transpires. Much of this consists of a succession of somewhat contrived scenes in which Ralph and the other characters laboriously articulate their feelings about each other, in the process filling in some of the back-story. Really, the most distinctive thing about these is Hurt’s willingness to go all the way in his portrayal of a misanthropic sod, but even so, I found my credibility detector starting to ping a little: it feels like the script has been written to give the actor a chance to do his stuff, rather than to present a rounded character, and this is surely melodrama rather than drama.

That said, it is of course John Hurt of whom we are speaking, one of those people who always seemed almost incapable of giving a bad performance, and his talent is the firm pillar around which the somewhat rickety edifice of That Good Night has been constructed. This is a star vehicle for Hurt, and he does his very best with some rather suspect material. If this film has any kind of posterity, it will be as his final filmed performance (though not quite his last film to be released, as he has a supporting role in a thriller called Damascus Cover out later this year). Given the fact that this film is about coming to terms with the end of life – that moment when the horizon stops receding, as the film’s most memorable dialogue puts it – and the fact that Hurt himself was terminally ill while making it, it’s almost a surprise the film does not feel more poignant and affecting. But it doesn’t, and if you ask me this is just another sign of weakness in the material.

I could also complain that Sofia Helin doesn’t get the quality of script she deserves, but at least she gets a chance to show her versatility, performing in English and being almost unrecognisable to anyone who only knows her as the socially-challenged but implacable detective from The Bridge (I suspect this may be down to the magic of a mysterious procedure known as ‘acting’). To be honest, though, the only person to come close to challenging Hurt’s domination of the film is Charles Dance (landing the ‘and’ spot in the credits), who turns up as… well, again I probably shouldn’t say, but let’s put it this way – the film features a sort of plot twist, but it’s the kind of plot twist which it’s extremely difficult not to guess. Hurt and Dance get a number of rather windy scenes in which they debate the nature and ethics of euthanasia, particularly as it applies to the terminally ill. Nothing especially bold or thought-provoking is said, and it really is a tribute to the class and charisma of the actors that they are amongst the more engaging parts of the film.

In the end, though, all the film has to offer on this subject is a sort of nebulous, optimistic sentimentality, which increasingly colours its final scenes. Again, for a film which is clearly trying to hit you where you live, it is curiously affectless and bland. There’s nothing which is outright bad about it (though some of the more melodramatic moments come close), it just never really convinces as a drama. Matters are not really helped by the kind of direction and cinematography that almost puts one in mind of a reasonably classy TV drama, and an intrusive score which adds nothing to the atmosphere of the film and starts to feel like muzak long before the end.

That Good Night does touch on serious and important issues, but that’s all it does – it has no insights to offer, and it never makes you think or really feel anything. If it is worth seeing at all, it is for the performances of a number of very talented actors, but even here it is as a demonstration of their ability to lift a rum script into the realms of watchability. If That Good Night appeared as a Sunday night TV movie, it would pass ninety minutes in an inoffensive manner, but as an actual big-screen experience, it is rather lacking.

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