August 02, 2011

The Master: John Hurt

Why do I always forget about how masterly an actor John Hurt is?  I always think of him, first, as Caligula, in the miniseries I, Claudius (I also always think of Brian Blessed as Caesar Augustus).  Caligula is, of course, a monster, but in his perhaps most gruesome moments, John Hurt managed to display madness, and cruelty, yes, but also pure terror, which inspires great pity. (I'm not going to give away the scene, but, if you've seen it I am sure you know what I mean.)

I also have a tremendous soft spot for his role as Ollivander in Harry Potter 1 and 7.2.  He is the wizard who offers wands to the young wizards, and has for years and years.  He is old, his memory is long, and he is mostly kind--allowing each wand to choose it's right master, and being glad of the humble art he performs so well.  But there is darkness and regret in his eyes--for he has failed at times and fell under the spell of Voldemort once before.  To display wisdom and trust and regret all at once in a face--it's really quite remarkable.

John Hurt seems to be everywhere these days, and I am glad.  Why do we forget about these masters?  He was recently in a really powerful web-exclusive mini-series on Hulu, called The Confession.  Kiefer Sutherland is a professional hit-man who, after being forgiven by one of his victims, goes to a priest (John Hurt), not to make peace, but to understand the nature of evil.  Told over 10 episodes (totaling about an 70 minutes), the story is full of twists and suspenseful surprises.  Though I thought the final twist was a little predictable, I think it is an incredibly effective discussion of evil, justice, forgiveness, and our own moral responsibility. Hurt is marvellous: terrified and genuinely horrified by the man in front of him, but not because of true moral conviction, but rather because he has spent his life as a priest in safety. His sinfulness is also an issue here, and while he preaches about God's love, we quickly wonder if he believes it.  Sutherland's hit-man is not pure evil, and he executes a kind of justice (only killing those who he "knows" deserve to die), and it is his sense of justice that drives the conversation.  And in the end, a severe justice wins.  (Patheos blogger Tony Rossi compares Sutherland to O'Connor's Misfit here.)  I do recommend this series, though, be warned: it is both intense and violent at times.

Do you want more John Hurt love?  Saturday, RCA told me about a remake of the great John LeCarre cold war spy thriller, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  The original novel was adapted into a mini-series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley, who comes out of semi-retirement to seek out a mole in the top brass of MI6.  (It is one of the best mini-series ever.  I'd put it in my top five--along with I, Claudius, Brideshead, Pride and Prejudice, hmmmm, and maybe Cranford.)  Typically, I wouldn't be thrilled that they are remaking this into a movie--but look at the cast!  John Hurt plays Control. Colin Firth, Tom Hardy (Inception) and Benedict Cumberbach (Sherlock).  And, my other favorite, Gary Oldman, the most versatile actor ever, plays George Smiley.

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