John Hurt is a powerful actor who can command a screen with his eyes and determine a character with the degree of gravel in his voice. He can play irony, anger, jealousy, misery, quizzical and pathos. He can support, lead or play in an actors team. He is a consummate actor, making just a few character choices which were, being generous, unfortunate – Heaven’s Gate (1980), Champions (1984) and Even Cow Girls Get the Blues (1993) to name three. His screen-work set the tone for several films and ensured their artistic success, if not their commercial well being.
He established successful roles in A Man for All Seasons (1966), 10 Rillington Place (1971), The Naked Civil Servant (1975), The Elephant Man (1980) and as Max in Midnight Express (1978) – these established him as an actor of substance, one who could carry complex, sometimes menacing and often sharp roles; roles which demanded more than looks, gesture and tone. But it has been his careful and studied exploration of character in these and in films such as White Mischief (1987) and New Blood (1999). His conscious pursuit of depth and meaning in the characters he plays has made him a great character actor, deserving of more recognition.
In Miranda (2002) – a quirky Film Four film – he played a quietly menacing manipulator of reality, the puppet master of a woman who “owed him” while he stage-managed property sales of buildings he didn’t own. The effectiveness of this character was his simplicity and directness.
In a made for TV film, Bait (2002) he played an aggrieved bereaved father out to understand the murder of his daughter. Lonely – a characteristic of several parts – and yet deviantly engaged, he unravels and in doing so uncovers the mystery of his daughters death, but risks the lives of others in doing so. This simple, yet effective story, is made all the more real by the depth of character revealed by Hurt at each stage of the drama.
He has still more to do. He would make an interesting screen Lear, in a modern adaptation. He would be a powerful politician, playing out a modern conflict when challenged to make decisions in real time. He would make an effective media baron, facing bankruptcy in a slightly more interesting factional account of Conrad Black.
He continues to work hard – in 2005 he has already completed five films and one film voice over, making him a much sought after actor. The film to watch from the current batch will be The Proposition, with Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and Liam Neeson. Set in the Australian outback, written by rock star Nick Cave (who also created the music) and directed by John Hillcoat (Ghosts of the Civil Dead and To Have and To Hold), it should be a powerful, emotional Australian “western” film - Australia’s answer to the shot in Alberta Clint Eastwood movie Unforigiven (1992).
Also due this year, now in post production, is the film Shooting Dogs directed by Michael Caton-Jones (who directed Hurt in Rob Roy and Scandal). In this based on fact story, Hurt plays a tired and weary Catholic priest dealing with an imaginative, youthful English teacher. Set in Kigali, Rwanda, the story tells of the struggle between an Africa weary old man and an ideologically excitable young one at the time of the UN’s worst days in Rwanda. Hurt, by all accounts, is believable as he struggles with the dreadful experiences around him while trying to keep others focused and safe. An ideal role for Hurt.
At sixty five, John Hurt is still young enough to play some major roles and old enough to have the maturity to do so.