Movie release dates are often delayed for a myriad of reasons, especially in these uncertain times, and in the case of “That Good Night” it’s a particularly bittersweet late arrival. This lovely and moving and witty British drama that was filmed in 2015 marked the final lead film role for Sir John Hurt, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in January of 2017 at the age of 77. That the versatile Mr. Hurt (“Midnight Express,” “Alien,” the “Harry Potter” films and we could go on and on) is playing a formidable creative artist who is dying of cancer in the film makes it all the more poignant.
Based on a 1996 play by N.J. Crisp, “That Good Night” travels a very familiar road and we’re never in doubt as to where it will end, but thanks to director Eric Style’s beautiful shots of the wondrous locales in the Algarve in Portugal; a sharp screenplay by Charles Savage, and a suitably career-crowning performance by Hurt (with fine supporting work from the small ensemble cast), this is a lovely and old-fashioned character study with some sly humor and, of course, more than a couple of reach-for-the-tissues moments.
Although “That Good Night” was made before the recently released “Blackbird,” it has echoes of that September release, which starred Susan Sarandon as a family matriarch with a terminal illness who has decided to end her life on her own terms. But whereas Sarandon’s Lily has informed her family of her decision and in fact has gathered them together for a goodbye weekend, Hurt’s Ralph Maitland, a famous novelist and screenwriter, has told only one person of his intentions: an urbane, unnamed visitor in a cream-colored suit who is a member of a secret society that facilitates the euthanasia process, but only after rigorous questioning to determine whether the “customer,” so to speak, is 100% certain of the death wish. The Visitor, as he is referred to in the closing credits, is played by the formidable Charles Dance, and the scenes in which Hurt and Dance verbally fence are golden.
Looking frail and occasionally suffering lapses of thought, Ralph putters about his magnificent villa in a constant state of crabbiness, forever complaining about this or that, issuing caustic remarks that bounce off his long-suffering but still adoring and much younger second wife, Anna (Sofia Helin), a former nurse who fell in love with Ralph when he was hospitalized for a heart condition and has never looked back. She’s stuck with him, and she’s OK with that. Ralph invites his estranged son Michael (Max Brown) for a weekend visit, much to Michael’s surprise, but things get off to a rocky start when Michael shows up with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), who immediately feels the sting of Ralph’s rude jabs and puts up with it until enough is enough. Like Anna, Cassie is a sweet and kind and patient woman, but she is not to be underestimated.
Like so many grown sons of so many accomplished fathers in so many movies, Michael has never been able to escape the legendary shadow of his dad. Michael is a writer, just like his father, but as Ralph is always quick to point out, Michael has squandered his talent by doing safe, commercially viable projects instead of pushing himself. In fact, Ralph shows more tenderness to the young son of the housekeeper than he does to his own son. (The little boy is played by Noah Jupe, a good five years younger than he is in the current HBO series “The Undoing.”)
“That Good Night” takes its title from the Dylan Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” with its famous line about how “old age should burn and rave at close of day, rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” and that’s a pretty clear tipoff Ralph is going to have a change of heart about ending things. He has an almost Ebenezer Scrooge-like reawakening, thanks to a convenient plot turn, and in the final scenes, “That Good Night” takes on a warm albeit melancholy glow, and it’s our privilege to see John Hurt still at the top of his game even as he was heading home for the last time.