John Hurt's final foray in the Portuguese Algarve is a sun-drenched, sweet reflection on family dynamics and the road towards, in Dylan Thomas' words, 'that good night'.

When John Hurt passed away in January 2017, he left a gaping hole in cinema. Beloved by an older generation for his roles in The Elephant Man, 1984 and Alien, he made his mark on a younger generation playing the Olivander in Harry Potter series, and had recurring roles in Doctor Who. His final film is a fitting swan song for the veteran actor and, bathed in the Portuguese sun, feels like a goodby wave from the actor, a swan song that he knew he had to sing following his terminal diagnosis two years earlier. 

Adapted by Charles Savage, That Good Night is adapted form the NJ Crisp play and inspired by Dylan Thomas’ poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’. Younger audiences might know it from Christopher Nolan’s space voyage epic, Interstellar, but used here its use is aimed at older audiences. 

John Hurt That Good Night Charles Dance Portugal

Charles Dance as ‘The Visitor’ looms over John Hurt’s Ralph Maitland in That Good Night. Photo: Goldfinch Studios/Trafalgar Releasing.

Set in the sun-soaked hills of the Portuguese coastline, the film itself adopts the same pace as the lives of its lead characters. From the poolside, to the writing room, the film feels very much like a stage play in its tempo and rhythm, and proves a supple commentary on family relationships and the lingering presence of death that hovers over all of us. 

That Good Night follows celebrated writer, Ralph Maitland (John Hurt) in the midst of his quest to put pen to paper for the last time in anticipation of the inevitable ‘final deadline’. In his last years he has only one missions; to reconcile his grievances with his son, Michael (Max Brown), with whom he has an estranged relationship, whilst relieving his wife, Anna (Sofia Helin) of any burden.  

He is stalled in his much overdue reconciliation by the presence of Michael’s girlfriend, Cassie (Erin Richards), whose acerbic clapbacks knock Ralph for six as he trots out several unwelcoming comments to the family’s newest arrival with a miserly frown. When his wife is away, Ralph secretly employs the ‘Visitor’ (Charles Dance), a sort of etherial spectre of death who tries to encourage Hurt to hold on before going head first into “that good night”. 

Hurt and Dance’s moments together are to be savoured, every lingering pause for breath feels cavernous between the delivery of lines shared between the two British icons. Strangely, nobody else ever meets or comes into contact with the Visitor. Indeed, Ralph’s pool boy fails to see who he was talking about as Ralph points to a white-linen-suited figure somewhere in the distance. Presented as an elite member of an organisation that offers euthanasia to the suffering, the dialogue between the two characters has something of a dream-like quality about it as they discuss the end of days in their most soothing of voices. 

Directed by Eric Styles, That Good Night is little more than a vessel through which Hurt can wave a fond goodbye to his audience. The story plods along to an inevitable conclusion when Ralph remarkably has a personality transplant when he learns he is to be a grandfather, and decides he can hang on until it’s time for him to go naturally. It lacks character development, particularly in the case of Michael, who has all the charisma of a damp flannel, and begs the question whether this wouldn’t be a very different film if it were set in a two bed semi in damp, dark London. But it isn’t, and Portugal’s rolling hills and clean-white summer houses make for a charming resting place for Hurt’s exceptional career. 

★★★☆☆

That Good Night will be released in cinemas in the UK on 11th May 2018.