“Are you sorry you woke up?”
What makes it worth living for another day, or two, or a few months? In Eric Styles’s film That Good Night, based on a play by N.J. Crisp, that becomes the real question, not just to be or not to be. Ralph (the late John Herd in his final film) is an aging famous screenwriter. He knows his death is coming soon, but keeps that information from his younger wife Anna (Sofia Helin). As he gets his affairs in order, he demands his estranged son come to visit “before Sunday”. He also makes an appointment with The Society to send a representative. Ralph’s goal is to have a reconciliation with his son, and to avoid being a burden to his wife in his final days.
When his son Michael (Max Brown) arrives with his girlfriend Cassie (Erin Richards), Ralph is amazingly rude, eventually pushing Michael and Cassie to leave with nothing resolved. Ralph has never had a real relationship with Michael. We learn that Ralph wanted Michael’s mother to abort him. Ralph never saw the child until he was five years old, and rarely after that. Even as an adult, and himself a successful screenwriter, Michael has conflicted feelings towards his father.
After Michael’s departure, while Ralph is at home alone, The Visitor (Charles Dance), dressed in white, arrives from The Society. He and Ralph talk, in a pseudo-hypothetical fashion about euthanasia. Ralph is ready to end it all. The Visitor suggests waiting and counseling. But Ralph insists. The Visitor provides a shot that Ralph things will bring death. When that is not the case, Ralph has a second chance at making things right in his life. He discovers that there may be things yet to come that are worth the suffering that his final months will bring.
You might note that the title is a phrase from a famous poem by Dylan Thomas, which deals with facing death. That poem comes up twice in the film. The first is during Ralph’s first conversation with The Visitor. At that time Ralph says that Thomas, who was less that forty when he died, didn’t have an understanding of the real nature of impending death. The idea of “raging against the dying of the light” is a young man’s idea. The entire poem is read in voice over at the end of the film, now with a different emotional context.
The relationship between Ralph, Anna, Michael and Cassie provide the narrative and emotional structure of the film. The conversations that Ralph has with The Visitor are the intellectual content of the film. Those conversations, ostensibly about euthanasia, are much more centered on life than death. Even when talking about life after death, The Visitor notes that he knows that he doesn’t know. What matters is not the beyond, but the now. We sense that The Visitor is not just a local representative of a euthanasia group. He speaks of being interested in ending the suffering that people go through, but he is also very cognizant of the suffering of everyone involved in Ralph’s life. The Visitor tries to encourage Ralph to see the things that could be worthwhile, even in his final months. His return visits always give Ralph a vision of what could still lie ahead.
A key pair of scenes that occur simultaneously, are of Anna attending Mass in town while Ralph and The Visitor discuss Ralph’s desire to die. Just as Anna receives the Body during the Eucharist, The Visitor gives Ralph the injection Ralph thinks is his death. It turns out that, like the eucharist, the injection becomes both a symbol of death, and an entry into new life. It provides, in a sense, resurrection for Ralph. Resurrection is always about new possibilities.
That Good Night is available on VOD.
Photos courtesy of Trinity Creative Partnership and GSP Studios.