“Never, oh! Never, nothing will die;
The stream flows,
The wind blows,
The cloud fleets,
The heart beats,
Nothing will die.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson
As John Merrick lays down to sleep for the first and last time in his cruelly short life, a vision of his angelic mother’s face – a face that, until then, existed only as the still photograph of an idealized memory – appears before him, welcoming him to the afterlife with this soothing quotation from Lord Tennyson. It’s as poignant a death scene as has ever been filmed, one that ties Tennyson’s poetry to the real Joseph Carey Merrick’s devout Christian beliefs, and in doing so turns his voluntarily self-inflicted euthanasia into a triumphant affirmation of the immortality of the soul.
These were suitable words upon which to close John Merrick’s life and they are just as suitable to salute the passing of the man who burned him in our memories forever, for Sir John Hurt dedicated the entirety of his long and extraordinarily diverse career to personify them in body and soul, often elevating them to a point of transcendental incandescence. Whether his guise was that of a mad archaeologist, an eccentric reclusive billionaire, a mysterious wand salesman or the unfortunate victim of a parasitic alien, John Hurt was life, in all its rich, multifaceted and generous splendour.
After a few minor roles in episodes of Probation Officer, Z Cars and the numeral anthology series Drama, John Hurt made his feature film debut in Ralph Thomas’s 1962 romantic drama The Wild And The Willing, where he appeared alongside fellow newcomer Ian McShane as a university student going through the tumults of post-adolescent desires. But it was his portrayal of the ambitious young lawyer Richard Rich in Fred Zinnemann’s 1966 Oscar-winning adaptation of A Man For All Seasons that first gained him global critical attention. Though rightfully remembered for Paul Scofield’s imperious depiction of Sir Thomas More as an inflexible model of righteousness, the film owes much of its efficiency to John Hurt’s quietly despairing counterpoints as the fragile, easily corruptible Rich. In a sea of bombast and solemnity, Hurt’s Rich is a small island just waiting for the tide to erode his borders and engulf him – which, inevitably, it does.
Hurt’s consummate aptitude at externalising the contradictory inner struggles of troubled men striving to be greater than they are would go on to serve him greatly in true crime drama 10 Rillington Place, in which he played wrongfully accused serial killer’s patsy Timothy Evans with frustrated fervour. Instead of making Evans a mere death penalty martyr, Hurt concentrated years’ worth of perceived social and masculine inadequacy inside a trembling, skinny working man’s body, humanising Evans’ predicament without excusing his domestic violence or patronising his lack of intelligence.
That body, so small without seeming diminutive, so frail and yet so steadfast, was one of Hurt’s great unsung assets. People remember his resonantly hoarse voice, with that particularly rich whisky flavouring that seemed to give him decades’ worth of lived experience before he was even 40, but too few take note of the remarkable corporal fluidity with which he combined it. Consider The Naked Civil Servant and its somewhat inferior 2009 sequel An Englishman In New York, in which he immortalised gender-bending gay iconoclast Quentin Crisp with the kind of fabulous dignity most actors would simulate with calculated tricks. Neither flaming queen nor blushing virgin, Hurt’s Crisp uses his body the way high-society ladies used fans: concealing parts of himself only to let the important bits slip through more gracefully. His hip-swinging, wrist-flicking decorum should, to a heterosexual audience, come across as a defensive performance exerted in defiance of social pressure, yet there is not a moment when it does not feel like the truest possible expression of his soul. Understanding his position as Crisp’s “representative here on Earth” (as the man himself put it with typical wit), Hurt never begs for our approval, nor does he attempt to usurp his model; he simply embraces the amused curiosity and self-deprecation that made him such a remarkable and often controversial icon of queer Britannia.
But in no other role was this unique blend of innocence and world-weariness given deeper meaning than in his matchless portrayal of Caligula in the acclaimed BBC series I, Claudius. Bleach-haired, sallow-skinned and dwarfed even by his timid uncle Claudius, Hurt plays Caligula like a prematurely aged schoolboy, gleefully reaping the many perks of his job while barely able to comprehend what it actually entails. He struts like a spoilt brat playing grown-up, bending and making rules with childlike glee just because he can, yet also struggles to understand his own mind, at times showing poignant bouts of lucidity only to immediately retreat into comfortable games of make-believe. Add that to the permanent dissonance between his body and voice and it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for him to conclude that he must be a god reincarnated in mortal form. How else could he explain all these powerful urges and emotions screaming to get out of him? Not content with simply typifying the “mad emperor” archetype, he traces his character’s madness to the unfulfillable needs created by a lethal combination of absolute power and spiritual corruption. Mad, sad and dangerous even to himself, Hurt’s Caligula is in turns frightening, comical, shocking and pitiable – but never one-dimensional.
In the years following I, Claudius, John Hurt’s body would again play a key role in his three foremost cinematic successes: reduced to a skeletal mound of hair, skin and bone in 1978’s Midnight Express; gruesomely violated in 1979’s Alien; and buried beneath layers of prosthetic tumours and overgrowths in 1980’s The Elephant Man; John Hurt achieved worldwide cultural immortality the hard way. Yet the spectacularly transformative nature of these roles must not overshadow their actual accomplishments, particularly in the case of The Elephant Man: John Hurt did not deliver his most delicately poignant performance because or in spite of the makeup covering his face and body; he did so in conjunction with it. The greatness can be seen in those curious, nervous eyes, heard in that voice that strains for freedom, felt in every careful movement made not to conform to societal notions of respectability so much as enact a dormant, barely-conscious form of pride. There are no tics, no lazy reliance on the magic of artifice in that performance. Only the pure, unvarnished truth of a deceptively simple statement: he was a man.
The 1970s and 1980s were also a period of remarkable voice acting for Mr. Hurt, most famously in Martin Rosen’s animated adaptations of the late Richard Adams’ Watership Down and The Plague Dogs. Disneyphiles will no doubt recall his ghostly intonations as the Horned King in The Black Cauldron – the high point of an otherwise mediocre film – and many Tolkien fans have cited his vocal performance as Aragorn in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord Of The Rings (released the same year as Watership Down) as a favourite interpretation of the character.
Given the coincidence of John Hurt’s death with the re-emergence of the spectre of Western authoritarianism and its encroachment on an already morally corrupt surveillance state, it would be remiss not to mention his haunting performance as Winston Smith in Michael Radford’s sublimely bleak film adaptation of 1984. Hurt’s acting in this film is perhaps his most underrated; restrained, instinctive and internalised to a point where he seems on the verge of shrinking into oblivion, he embodies the horrors of totalitarianism almost effortlessly. Never were his slight frame, hoarse voice and precociously wizened face used more perspicaciously than as the human face of suppressed individuality.
As is sadly the case with so many actors, the list of worthily complex roles dwindled as he grew older. His talent, however, did not, as evidenced by just some of the many supporting parts he played in the last two decades of his career: younger viewers such as myself were likely first exposed to the magic of Mr. Hurt through his enchanting cameo as Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, which he later reprised in both parts of the Deathly Hallows. Others will fondly recall the knowing twinkle in his eyes as he trained a young rookie to connect with his increasingly estranged adoptive son in Hellboy, or his vociferous turn as V For Vendetta’s fascist dictator. Other notable recent performances include a philandering father of the bride in Melancholia, the dying, paranoid head of British intelligence in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and a proletarian revolution’s crippled spiritual leader in Snowpiercer. But the best of all of these late-period roles has to be his unforgettable 8-minute appearance in The Proposition as a drunken, foul-mouthed, well-read, bigoted bounty hunter bearing the delightful name of Jellon Lamb: single-handedly summarising the film’s ghoulish tableau of colonial savagery, Hurt plays Lamb as a decrepit old Captain Marlow figure whose long-forgotten quest for Kurtz has yielded no enlightenment or insight, just an empty nihilistic rage against the world, wrapped in the drink-sodden illusion of racial and cultural supremacy. It’s one of the actor’s most vivid creations, startling in its strangeness, yet perfectly consistent with the long line of social and moral outcasts whose craft he specialised in.
Such is the legacy bequeathed to us by that soulful poet of physical expression that was John Hurt: a lifelong study of humankind’s darkest and most enigmatic impulses, conducted with a perpetually open mind and an exceptionally sensitive heart. He leaves behind a long and diverse résumé that includes four films that have yet to be released, the last of which being Joe Wright’s WWII drama Darkest Hour in which he plays Neville Chamberlain opposite Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill. May these performances all be counted among the many we will continue to discover, enjoy and treasure forever.