Few plays work well in a cinematic environment. Singular locations grow restrictive, waves of dialogue sound superfluous, and sometimes the acting (suited for the stage) is too over-the-top to take seriously. Based on the 1996 stage-play by N.J. Crisp, That Good Night ticks these off like a to-do list.
In his last performance before his death in January last year, John Hurt plays Ralph – an agèd screenwriter living opulently in Portugal with his younger wife Anna (Sofia Helin). After receiving news of a terminal illness, Ralph tries to secretly make amends with his son Michael (Max Brown) by inviting him over. But this becomes difficult, as Ralph can never find the right opportunity to tell him.
Following the curse of most theatre-to-film adaptations, That Good Night doesn’t seem to desire a filmic presence. It mostly consists of monotonously stunted shots of actors acting, as if director Eric Styles and cinematographer Richard Stoddard were satisfied that their deliveries were enough to tell Crisp’s story. They rely on exquisite Portuguese locations, as if distracting us away from the film’s visual dullness. Even worse, screenwriter Charles Savage doesn’t appear to adapt the play with any sort of movie-awareness – leading to a poor display of editing by Mali Evans and Chris Timson.
But the story carries us through these irritations. The characters are watchable enough to follow, despite a tired premise (done to better effect last year in Sally Potter’s The Party). The history between Ralph and his son Michael is engaging, though some of the hard-hitting dialogue is lazily executed. Most of the exposition in the film – seemingly copied and pasted from the original text – are annoyingly spontaneous.
The most immersive scenes are those between Hurt and Charles Dance, the latter playing a Bergmanesque doctor (referred to only as “The Visitor” in the end credits). Dance obviously owns the role, and the writing shines in their scenes together – unfolding like the dark dialogues between Death and Antonious in The Seventh Seal. There’s an alluring sense of mystery shrouding The Visitor and we’re never sure who he is, where he’s come from, or even whether he’s real or not. He’s just there to advise.
Some of the other performances aren’t especially inspiring – particularly Henlin, who’s never very convincing in her role. But Hurt flies unscathed through inferior performances and technical disappointments, in a role that feels perfect as his last (shooting soon after finding out about his own terminal illness). And closing his sumptuous career with the existential words of Dylan Thomas is enough to move anybody.
That Good Night has some charm sticking to the story and its characters, but floats through a lukewarm experience. It’s like watching a high-brow soap opera. It falls into the classic anti-cinematic traps laid by countless other theatre-to-film adaptations that have nothing new to state. Careless direction and clunky writing don’t help either.
That Good Night is released in the UK on 11th May 2018