Tolstoy explained it to us when he said that a true work of art was the transmission of a feeling experienced by the artist. The viewer, in turn, receives the work, and so experiences the same feeling.
John Hurt is a great actor: we will watch a film, regardless of it’s style or subject matter, simply because he’s in it. The body of work is immense, spanning 60 years, taking in some of the most important actors and directors along the way. The range is enormous; from the vulnerable and the unbeknownst in titles such as 10 Rillington Place, 1984, The Elephant Man and The Shout, to the thuggish and the sordid; a hitman in The Hit, a misogynist in 44 Inch Chest and a bullying office manager in Dead Man. His work is an example of excellence.
Hurt is a cultural figure we trust. When he speaks, we listen. For so many of us, he has been a presence our whole lives, from Watership Down onwards. He doesn’t do cheap lip-quivering, he’s not trying to sell us something, he hasn’t got his hand over his heart. Our trust in him has been built up by consistently putting work of integrity on the screen – his acting is true.
Finally, Hurt is not some interchangeable spoke in a wheel like so many actors seem to be – no, his screen persona is unique. And his uniqueness stems from his extraordinary sensibility; his delicacy, his care, his precision, his sensitivity, his humility, his compassion, his love, his generosity, and his acknowledgement of, and acceptance of, our fragility. His performances are true, and when we watch them we experience his feelings, we experience his extraordinary sensibility and we are elevated.
What is the lesson for the rest of us then? Perhaps this: an artist’s work is an expression of his experience – if we want more kindness in our work, perhaps we should create more kindness in our lives.