Sunday 21 January 2018

An icon of suffering who made great art

It sometimes felt that John Hurt was rasping his way towards a sort of stage and screen immortality

EVERY CREASE TELLS A STORY: The late John Hurt, pictured in 2013. Photo: David Conachy
EVERY CREASE TELLS A STORY: The late John Hurt, pictured in 2013. Photo: David Conachy

Tim Robey

John Hurt was special. He was every whiskey-soaked cigarette butt matted to your clothes after a magnificently unsavoury night out. He was an icon of suffering and survival - a martyr of stage and screen.

He died all the time, and can't be dead.

It sometimes felt like he was rasping his way to immortality. Hurt was always the one who got it worst in films - in short, it hurt, being John Hurt.

Think of him in Alien (1979) as poor Kane, the most likeable and easygoing of the Nostromo's crew, who of course was the one to have a slimy proboscis shoved down his throat, a hideous organism clamped to his face for days, and another one primed to burst through his abdominal wall in the grossest childbirth scene in film history.

Of course, Hurt was the attempted escapee from a hellhole of a Turkish jail in Midnight Express (1978), who wound up only transcending its horrors by sliding into a heroin stupor. His face, his voice, his everything, told you Hurt was going to get it in the neck.

Naturally he voiced Hazel, the main rabbit in the unbelievably harrowing Watership Down (1978). Obviously he was Winston Smith, literature's ultimate loser, in the version of 1984 that denied all science-fictional remove by being made in 1984. And, yes, he was a vampire version of the murdered playwright Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), who faked his death back in 1593, but managed to die, hideously, from contaminated blood, centuries later.

Hurt's most celebrated film role was probably John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980). He was utterly astonishing. Underneath that suffocating prosthetic head, he conveyed a beautiful, yearning, and grateful soul. That slurping voice was so desperately human.

Watching him offer thanks for tiny crumbs of comfort, given the unbelievable cruelty of his condition, will never not yank our insides out. And his will, at the end, to silently argue that enough's enough, made it one of the most redemptive tragedies ever filmed.

The stories about Hurt will outlive him for decades. Almost every boozer in the West End could probably provide a compendium.

At some awards do, once - he was never being given one, and always should have been - he won the night by climbing on to his designated table some time around dessert, and demanding with perfect authority that the wine be replenished. It was almost impossible not to love Hurt, and just about everyone probably wishes they'd met him. I certainly do.

Only Hurt, when performing Beckett's hour-long Krapp's Last Tape to two packed houses in the West End every night, would describe in detail the meal he liked to consume before his "second Krapp".

Thankfully, a film survives of this gargled, legendary, one-foot-in-the-grave performance, directed by Atom Egoyan. He was a perfect actor for Beckett - basically, it's him, Billie Whitelaw, and Patrick Magee, and everyone else can wait outside. He was brilliantly able to incarnate both rage and resignation, and being at the end of things.

But he didn't always give up the ghost. Very movingly, in the under-regarded Champions (1984), he played the steeplechase jockey Bob Champion, who overcame testicular cancer and won the Grand National in 1981. It's a film many Hurt fans won't have seen. It won't be an easy one to watch for a while.

Hurt's whole aura will be missed. No one else could have given Lars von Trier's Dogville (2003) such music in the voiceover - he was omniscient, sardonic, punishingly wise. He's rightly famed for that voice, which had both razor blades and molasses in it. But he could do without it entirely. The face was some kind of parchment from an archaeological dig, with secrets written all over it. He didn't utter a single word in Iain Softley's The Skeleton Key (2005) - an enduringly nifty bit of voodoo hokum - because his character was a stroke casualty, a terrified prisoner, and the victim of a fate so malign we never guessed it up front.

Watching him strain to communicate this mute revulsion of the soul was mesmerising: it was almost the purest performance he ever gave.

As for the last one, there look to be a half-dozen in post-production which will sustain a haunted sort of afterlife in the next year or so. Right now, he's there in Pablo Larrain's sensational Jackie, as an Irish priest trying to guide the widowed Jackie Kennedy through her wilderness of despair and incomprehension.

This film proves as well as any that we tend, or tended, to trust John Hurt when he talked about death, or acted his way through dying.

How did he understand it so well? He's caught up - too soon, even at 77 - with a life's project any actor could scrutinise and learn from. And it's just such a moving legacy. He was extraordinary.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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