Greetings again from the darkness. Art imitating life is something we’ve not only grown accustomed to, but also something we expect. In this case it’s the bittersweet final performance of the great John Hurt. A terminally ill man taking on the role of a terminally ill man. Director Eric Styles is working from a script by Charles Savage that was adapted from N.J. Crisp’s stage production. It’s easy to see how this could be a powerful live show, but the stunning home in Portugal where most of the film is set, makes for a pleasant transition to the screen.
John Hurt stars as Ralph Maitland, a self-centered, highly successful screenwriter, who may be an even more proficient curmudgeon. He lives in a beautiful home with his younger wife Anna (Sofia Helin, “The Bridge”), who was once his nurse. Ralph receives the dreaded prognosis at his doctor appointment. Rather than tell his wife, he proceeds with ‘getting his affairs in order’ and summoning home his estranged son Michael (Max Brown, “The Royals”). Michael was born to Ralph’s first wife, and he is also a writer.
Ralph’s true colors shine when Michael shows up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards, “Gotham”). Although Cassie is pretty tough, Ralph devolves from curmudgeon to downright churlish. His rudeness exceeds the bounds of palatable during dinner at a local restaurant, sending Michael and Cassie scampering off before appetizers. Anna is embarrassed by her husband’s actions, but he just continues on with his process – a process that includes contacting “The Society”, which facilitates Euthanasia.
A man in an impeccable white linen suit appears in the doorway of Ralph’s office. He’s only referred to as “The Visitor”, and his played by Charles Dance, Mr. Hurt’s co-star in the underrated 1987 film WHITE MISCHIEF. The conversations between Ralph and The Visitor deliver the best dialogue in the film, and likely the deepest since it forces Ralph to face his mortality and the impact and finality of his decision. It’s here where Ralph’s “low boredom threshold” is mentioned, and quickly minimized by The Visitor.
The film is a relatively simple look at a complex topic, and it also highlights the importance of reconciling with family members, and discovering a reason to keep living. The weakness here is that we only scratch the surface of Anna and Michael, and even what turned Ralph into the man he is. We get a quick glimpse of Ralph interacting with Ronaldo (Noah Jupe, HONEY BOY, A QUIET PLACE), the housekeeper’s son, in a manner that makes us believe he has regrets on his poor parenting during Michael’s childhood. Cinematographer Richard Stoddard takes full advantage of the beautiful scenery, as well as the uncomfortable interactions amongst the family.
John Hurt died in 2017, just 3 weeks after filming was complete. He had a remarkable 55 year acting career, including Oscar nominations for his work in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978) and THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980). Of course he will always be remembered for his iconic chestburster moment in ALIEN (1979). He compiled more than 200 acting credits, and some of my other favorite John Hurt characters are found in: 1984 (1984), OWNING MAHONEY (2003), TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011), and the voice of rabbit Hazel in WATERSHIP DOWN (1978). Dylan Thomas’ 1947 poem plays a key role in this film (and title), and the sentiment also captures the spirit of John Hurt: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”