Movie Review: Good
31 December 2008
Viggo Mortensen and Jason Isaacs in a tale of the rise of the Third Reich from the perspective of a man whose not-bad intentions are at distinct odds with his actions
Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
If you can get past the strong feeling that you've seen all of Good's parts elsewhere at some time or another, it's actually a decent drama. The points made by John Wrathall's screen adaptation of C.P. Taylor's stage play are all valid and well-articulated, and Viggo Mortensen's turn as a milquetoast professor made into an unlikely Nazi official is pretty striking.
At the start of Good, Professor John Halder (Mortensen) can't be bothered with joining the Nazi party, even though his father-in-law keeps insisting he'll never get promoted if he doesn't. John has his hands full with his aspirations as a novelist, the father of several young children, the husband of an unstable wife (Anastasia Hille) and the son of an increasingly unwell mother (Gemma Jones). Then several things happen. Surprisingly, Reich officials take positive notice of John's book and offer him a job, and one of John's lovely students, Anne (Jodie Whittaker), takes a serious interest in teacher. John goes along to get along, trying to convince himself that he personally isn't doing anyone any harm, despite general evidence to the contrary and the specific the disapproval, desperation and disgust of his best friend Maurice (Jason Isaacs), a Jewish psychiatrist who is having increasingly serious problems of his own.
What keeps Good from being better (apart from a title that just begs to be played on verbally) is the vagueness of its main character, not just in his carefully cultivated sense of denial, but in the way he's treated by the script and by director Vicente Amorim. Since most of the suspense here comes out of wondering what John will do when presented with ethical challenges - and it must be said he's not entirely predictable - Amorim and Wrathall seem reluctant to probe his soul. For one thing, they don't want to ask us to empathize too much with him, and for another, getting too far inside John's mind might tip us as to which way he'll jump. It's a way of keeping narrative suspense going, but it also keeps us at arm's length in terms of character study. It's understandable, and it works, but it also prevents us from feeling that we're discovering something new and unique.
Mortensen, often cast as tough men of action and boundless rectitude, persuades us here that his John Halder has the skills to present to the world and himself a façade of decency over the spine of a jellyfish. It's a very skillful, commendably self-effacing performance. Isaacs, who gets a lot of the best lines and moments as the character whose view is most in line with that of the audience, is both likeably urbane and touchingly open. Jones and Hille are both affecting and Whittaker is suitably alluring. Mark Strong and Steven Mackintosh provide intriguing support as Nazi functionaries with their own concerns.
Good works as drama and as a statement on the perils of unexamined living. It just is never as illuminating as it appears to want to be.
Last edited: 1 January 2009 15:32:58