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Review: That Good Night – “A bittersweet final performance from a screen legend”

The title taken from the Dylan Thomas poem Do not go gentle into that good night, couldn’t be more fitting for the premise of this film. A premise made all the more poignant not only because it centres on a man facing his own mortality, but because it is the late John Hurt’s final performance and one he gave after his own terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2015.

John Hurt plays Ralph Maitland, a curmudgeonly, booze house screenwriter living off past glory in the picturesque Portuguese countryside. He discovers he has a terminal condition but decides to keep the diagnosis from his younger wife, Anna (Sofia Helin). This sets in motion a decision to get his affairs in order, make peace with his estranged son Michael (Max Brown) and make plans for a dignified death.

The setting is the most cinematic aspect of this dialogue-heavy stage-play adaptation (written by N.J. Crisp). The film is rather uneven, and perhaps this story was always better suited to the stage than the screen. Most of the characters in Eric Styles’ film are just there to react to Ralph’s caustic bluntness and moods. “It’s always the same elation of creation and the gloom when he stops”, Anna quips when Michael and his girlfriend Cassie arrive.

The supporting characters all seem a little underwritten compared with Ralph. A subplot around Anna’s life before Ralph and sacrifices she made to be with him are mainly seen through his eyes. And with the exception of Cassie’s non-nonsense repost to a particularly toxic (and misogynistic) tirade from the old man, Erin Richards doesn’t have much agency.

The film takes a tonal shift with the arrival of an enigmatic Charles Dance (referred to only as ‘The Visitor’). Ralph has summoned him via ‘The Society’ presumably an organisation that offers the terminally ill a chance to die with dignity. Charles Dance is dressed in crisp white linen, and breezes in like a velvet-voiced Angel of Death or perhaps a conjuring of Ralph’s mind. The film’s real heart and depth live in the scenes between these two men where life’s big questions and subjects are raised: religion, existentialism, regret.

There is some tenderness in the more downplayed scenes too though. A small act of kindness Ralph shows his housekeeper’s young son displays the kind of affection he struggled to show his own son.

While the film hits all the obvious beats during Ralph’s final months, I defy you to hear John Hurt reciting Dylan Thomas without a tear in your eye. As a piece of cinema That Good Night is fairly flawed, but as a character study, it’s a bittersweet final performance from a screen legend.

That Good Night opens in UK cinemas on 11th May 2018.

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