A family airs its collective grievances before facing grief in A Good Death, a Dutch film based on Wannie de Wijn’s successful 2008 stage play about a group of relatives gathering to say goodbye to a terminally ill member. Bernhard (Wilbert Gieske) has late-stage lung cancer and has decided to end his suffering with the help of his friend and doctor, Robert. The end is planned for 9 on a Saturday morning, and the family gathers on Friday afternoon. Only Bernhard is at peace with his decision.
A Good Death begins with the arrival of his brother, Michael (Huub Stapel), a hard-drinking, coarse-talking businessman, who has just flown in from China. Michael has been invited at the last minute by his niece, Sammy (Saskia Bonarius), and immediately expresses his suspicions about the euthanasia plan, insisting that it’s the scheme of his ex-wife, Hannah (Will van Kralingen), who is now Bernhard’s lover, for her financial gain.
Each family member registers a slightly different reaction to the impending event. Hannah, already in grief, has enough energy for a few barbed exchanges with Michael, but is primarily focused on Bernhard, who is still well enough to come downstairs and visit his family, and try to help them make peace before he goes. Sammy wants to spend more time with her father before his exit: Why must he die in the morning, she asks? What are they supposed to do for the rest of the day? Robert, the doctor, admits to growing reservations about assisted suicides (this is not his first one) but must honour a pact he made with Bernhard.
Rounding out the group is a younger brother, Ruben (Hans Thissen), an autistic man who normally stays at an institution but has been sent home for the occasion. Ruben plays piano but otherwise misses social cues. He’s the butt of Michael’s jokes and and occasionally pesters his pretty niece with clumsy sexual advances. Ruben’s disability serves, a bit too obviously, as a device for asking naive questions about death and the afterlife. At other times, he retires to the piano and plays emotionally suitable background music.
With the cast of the theatrical play reprising its roles on film, and most of the drama confined to a single house over the course of one evening and night, A Good Death doesn’t hide its stage roots, though this isn’t a liability. This is very much a case of the well-made conventional play, with the characters carefully differentiated, with a well-modulated progression of events through three acts, mixing conflict, moments of bonding over music and alcohol, and an eventual arrival at the common point of no return.
That said, beyond Michael and Hannah’s past, the family’s closet seems free of skeletons. Performances are all accomplished, with the late Will van Kralingen particularly memorable as a woman who has already moved on to grief while the rest of the family is still struggling with denial.