John Hurt’s films: 10 of his best performances

Donald Clarke selects some stand-out pictures from veteran actor’s career

British actor John Hurt, star of The Elephant Man, Alien and Harry Potter, dies aged 77 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

 

Time travel with Dr Who, an incarnation of which John Hurt played in 2013, to any year in the past four and a half decades and you’ll find yourself close to an extraordinary performance by that actor. Directors on TV and film never tired of him. Apparently inexhaustible, he will, later this year, make a posthumous appearance as Neville Chamberlain in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.

1. The Naked Civil Servant (1975)

Hurt was already 35 when his performance as Quentin Crisp, the great English raconteur, finally established his credentials. The ITV play (as such things were then still called) also managed to immeasurably boost Crisp’s standing and to get conversations about homosexuality into the mainstream.

2. Midnight Express (1978)

Hurt received his first Oscar nomination for playing Max, heroin addicted prison mate of the protagonist, in Alan Parker’s searing, hugely popular film. One of the films that heralded a coming rebirth for the British film business.

3. Alien (1979)

Hurt was Ridley Scott’s first choice for Kane, executive officer on the Nostromo, but, when the actor secured a job in South Africa, Jon Finch was cast in his place. Finch then fell ill and Hurt was dragged back at the very last minute. Bloody, chest-eviscerating immortality followed.

4. The Elephant Man (1980)

It is some measure of Hurt’s genius that his voice, sucked inwards to emulate John Merrick’s vocal disability, is barely recognisable in David Lynch’s enormously moving study of that eminent Victorian. Alongside Claude Rains’s turn in The Invisible Man, one of the great performances by an actor whose face is wholly concealed.

5. Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

Michael Radford’s version of the George Orwell classic (an inevitable release that year) can’t quite get across the novel’s grim, didactic wit, but Hurt is plausibly crushed as archetypal everyman Winston Smith. Few other actors can manage that tortured desperation.

6. The Field (1990)

John Hurt always fancied himself as Irish and he lived in the country for over a decade. In 1990, he got a chance to exemplify domestic craftiness as “The Bird” O’Donnell in Jim Sheridan’s version of John B Keane’s emblematic play. Hurt is practically a Fool to Richard Harris’s near-King Lear.

7. Love and Death on Long Island (1997)

“The sign says ‘thank you for not smoking’,” Hurt’s visiting Englishman tells an aggrieved American cab driver. “As I am smoking I do not expect to be thanked.” Deeply moving, slyly funny version of Gilbert Adair’s novel that deserves rediscovery.

8. Krapp’s Last Tape (2001)

John Hurt delivered a fine-grained performance for Atom Egoyan in, arguably, the best episode of the Beckett on Film series. Later playing the role on stage, he became almost as associated with Krapp as was Patrick Magee two generations earlier.

9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

The creators of the John Le Carré adaptation must have been aware of the unavoidable shadow of the 1979 TV series. But each actor managed to make each role his or her own. Hurt’s Control was more fragile and more deranged than that played by Alexander Knox on television.

10. Jackie (2016)

Hurt plays a priest who acts as confessor to Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s study of the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. The role is not a large one, but Hurt’s delicate presence adds great dignity to an already impressive film. Very intelligent casting.