John Hurt, one of Britain’s most profound screen presences, has a cinematic portfolio that is filled with versatility and some really astonishing accomplishments. Here is a list of my personal favourite John Hurt performances. There are a number that will not surprise and the occasional one that may have been forgotten along the way.
8. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
John Hurt appeared in more than one of the Harry Potter films. Yet, it is his performance in the first film that really stands out; partly because he has the most screen time in this film and partly because he seemed to really fit into the energy of Harry Potter. The spirit of the franchise and the childish excitement that we all experienced from the first book and film is encapsulated in Hurt’s portrayal as the quirky Ollivander. Hurt’s performance is charming as we accept him as an important character in such a potentially wonderful series of films.
7. The Proposition
His performance in The Proposition is short and sweet. The eccentricity that Hurt brings to his character may be perceived as a little over dramatic but he does in fact create a diversion in the plot and changes the pace of the film. Guy Pearce and John Hurt have fantastic screen chemistry and their first scene is electric and enthralling to watch. John Hurt adapts well to the ‘western’ and his delivery is suited to this contemporary take on the genre. Here, Hurt demonstrated that he is still capable of giving an energetic and heartfelt physical performance. A film that often gets lost under the radar, The Proposition is a respectable film that demonstrates Hurt at his best in recent years.
Hurt’s recreation of the notorious Stephen Ward is a subtly astonishing performance. This biopic is not focussed on Ward entirely, but it constantly returns to him and his role within one of Britain’s most infamous political sex scandals. Hurt brings humility and an empathy to his character that ties the whole film together. One of the greatest accomplishments of Scandal is the realism of the characters. Hurt is consistent and complex and his skills as an actor are demonstrated here.
5. V For Vendetta
It was only right that Hurt played the face of capitalism and dictatorship in this modern political thriller. To many, he is most recognisable as Winston Smith in the film adaptation of 1984 and here he subverts this image by playing ‘Big Brother’ himself. His presence is crucial to this film and he is consistently threatening and terrifying. There is something shocking about seeing Hurt in such an ugly role but witnessing Hurt’s entanglement in such an unattractive character is one of the most effective elements of this movie.
4. 10 Rillington Place
It is Richard Attenborough’s performance that one would immediately think of when remembering this masterpiece. Hurt is a perfect contrast to Attenborough’s monstrous character. Hurt plays a victim but is not afraid to highlight his flaws. 10 Rillington Place, along with Scandal, emphasises Hurt’s undeniable ability to tell the stories of real people. Cinema is a wonderful tool for telling true stories and it is actors like Hurt that make British cinema particularly wonderful at producing biopics. Hurt brings a vulnerability to the role of Timothy John Evans that helps us to understand this tragic story and this troubled individual, who suffered terribly at the hands of injustice.
It may not be a particularly deep character and Hurt is limited by his lack of screen time, but his participation in this film’s most iconic scene demonstrates Hurt’s impact upon cinema. Alien also highlights his ability to adapt to a variety of cinematic genres. John Hurt has undoubtedly left his mark on cinema through a variety of roles and films. Alien will always be remembered amongst his vast collection of work.
As we have already addressed, the character of Winston Smith is one of Hurt’s most memorable roles as well as being one of 20th century literature’s most iconic characters. Hurt’s performance is complimented by Richard Burton’s, and his approach to the character and his situation emphasises the cruelty of the world he is living in. John Hurt undergoes several drastic physical and mental changes in the role of Smith. It is Hurt at his most focussed and his most gentle.
1. The Elephant Man
It may be an obvious choice but there is no doubt that John Hurt achieved his greatest cinematic feat in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man. Hurt is at his most profound when reacting and responding to just one other actor. Richard Burton, Guy Pearce and Richard Attenborough are perfect examples of actors who have contributed to moving scenes with John Hurt but it his on screen work with Anthony Hopkins in Lynch’s masterpiece that is the most triumphant. The Elephant Man is John Hurt’s most exquisite piece of work. Hurt becomes Merrick. He accomplished something rare in The Elephant Man. Once again telling a true and tragic story, Hurt will forever be remembered for his portrayal of Merrick in a performance that is empathetic but never patronising or superficial.
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