Sailcloth: John Hurt's silent sea adventure

By Tim Masters
Entertainment and arts correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
A scene from Sailcloth, starring John Hurt

Actor John Hurt talks about his non-dialogue role in short film Sailcloth, and why cinema needs to get over its obsession with book adaptations.

John Hurt has one of the most distinctive voices in the business, but in 18-minute film Sailcloth he has no lines at all.

The film, written and directed by Elfar Adalsteins, was shot last year in the Cornish coastal village of St Mawes.

Hurt plays an elderly widower who sets up an elaborate decoy in order to slip away unseen from his nursing home. As the film's title suggests, his escape plans include a journey out to sea.

Image caption,
Sailcloth explores the themes of love and loss

Seen recently in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and last two Harry Potter films, Hurt says he was attracted by the "pure cinema" of his latest project.

"I don't think I've ever had something completely without words before," says the gravel-voiced actor. "Though I've done several films with very few words."

He adds: "The fact that one is either blessed or cursed with a voice that is recognisable is really of no consequence. I would be in poor shape if I relied on that!"

Hurt's career spans several decades on stage and screen, with Oscar nominations for Midnight Express (1978) and his portrayal of the disfigured John Merrick in David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980).

His other roles include Quentin Crisp in The Civil Servant (1975) and An Englishman in New York (2009), and Kane, the crew member with a nasty chest problem in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979).

Despite the literary adaptations on his CV - like Watership Down (1978) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) - Hurt speaks passionately about cinema that is not based on books.

"We have to keep reminding ourselves what cinema is - it is not a story with pictures," he says. "It is something in which the information is described and pushed forward by the image."

'Fantasy casting'

Hurt filmed Sailcloth in October 2010 shortly before starting work on cold war drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

"All the difficulties of Tinker Tailor are in that translation from literature to cinema," says Hurt.

"The one marvellous thing with [director] Tomas Alfredson is that he seems to be a master of that - I think he was fantastically successful in making it cinema; but it does make it 50 per cent more difficult than if you were making a film which was conceived as film."

Warming to his subject, Hurt adds: "If you're trying to get money for a film they ask 'What book is it from?' It's always the first question. And if you say it isn't from a best-seller there is a feeling of suspicion.

"I would like to smash that concept altogether. Even if film is the youngest medium it is well old enough to stand on its own two feet."

Director Elfar Adalsteins says he wrote the screenplay for Sailcloth with Hurt in mind.

"It's a case of fantasy casting gone right," he laughs.

Image caption,
Writer / director Elfar Adalsteins is set to make his first feature film in 2012

Born and raised in a small fishing village in Iceland, Adalsteins is now based in the UK where he runs his production company Berserk Films.

The story was inspired by the grandfather who brought him up in Iceland.

"The idea came to me a year after he passed away in 2008. He died in a nursing home and he'd been there for seven years - so I just wrote him an alternative exit."

Hurt chips in: "A glorious exit!"

Sailcloth premiered at the Rhode Island Film Festival in August, where it won the Grand Jury prize for best short. It has been put forward for selection in the short film category at the Oscars.

Adalsteins secured Hurt's services after submitting his script to the actor's agent. One meeting later, Hurt was on board.

Hurt, who led the judging panel for this year's Virgin Media Shorts competition says short films are a "fantastic breeding ground" for new talent.

"We don't have 'B' films, as it were, for directors to be able to start off," he says.

The actor is off next to the States where he is performing Samuel Beckett's play Krapp's Last Tape in Washington and New York.

Hurt will also be promoting Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for its US release next month.

Given its UK success, what does Hurt think US audiences will make of it?

"It's a British film so it should do better here than anywhere, but I know there are a lot of people worried about America," he says.

"But I think that it will succeed - not because it's anything British - simply because it is good cinema."

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