An Ambiguous Man

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Image Larry Horricks.
© Good Films.
 
Joining the list of late 2008 releases set in Nazi Germany (alongside Valkyrie, The Reader and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is director Vicente Amorim's Good, which casts Viggo Mortensen against type in the starring role of a morally confused, somewhat meek academic. Based on C.P. Taylor's play, Amorim's film is hardly groundbreaking, but he gets another sturdy performance out of Mortensen, and an even more impressive one from underappreciated British actor Jason Isaacs. Good steadily grows more intriguing with every scene, a movie that's intensity gradually rises to a satisfying boil.

The film's title refers to the ease with which a seemingly good person can fall prey to devastatingly corrupt influences. And here that good person is John Halder (Mortensen), a literature professor in 1930's Germany, who's of interest to the Nazi party because of a novel he wrote years earlier that championed euthanasia for the elderly. A Nazi official (Mark Strong) informs Halder that the government would like him to elaborate on the concept in an official paper they will commission him to write. Halder's ideas will be misappropriated to further the Third Reich's agenda.

This development is one of several changes in Halder's life. His marriage dissolves when he meets and falls in love with a student named Anne (Jodie Whittaker), a young, headstrong proponent of the new government. He also struggles to care for his mother (Gemma Jones) for whom aging is anything but a graceful process. But what will cause him the most difficulty are the changing dynamics of his lone friendship with Jewish psychiatrist Maurice (Isaacs).

Because John and Maurice's relationship carries the bulk of the film's dramatic heft, Mortensen and Isaacs' chemistry is essential, and the two actors display a well-tuned rapport. John Halder is far different from the types of characters we're accustomed to seeing Mortensen playing, and his convincing performance shows range. But it's Isaacs' tragic turn that gives the film a much-needed emotional component. His Maurice is a distinguished, charismatic, jovial man, who is eventually reduced to a hardened shell of his former self, forced to beg his friend to provide him the necessary documents to leave Germany when the government's intentions become clear. It's the downfall of this supporting character that really sparks the film.

Halder, however, is a difficult character to grasp, and since he's in virtually every scene (if not literally all of them), some viewers may find investment in the movie difficult. The professor, of course, doesn't lack intelligence, but his backbone can be difficult to locate, and he's too mired in the minutiae of his own life to fully grasp the dark changes gripping his country. In short, he's the perfect candidate to be manipulated. As Halder becomes more closely aligned with the Nazis - even made an honorary member of the S.S. - he's still unable, and unwilling, to confront reality. The film makes this evident via a recurring fantasy the man has where he envisions people singing in moments when his moral compass won't provide answers. This device, however, is a bit overly jarring to work.

It's to Amorim's credit that Good is able to make the transition into a feature film without wearing too many traces of its original theatrical form. His restrained direction always allows the focus to remain where it should - on the actors (who speak in British rather than German accents). And their performances, combined with the director's efficient storytelling, make for a movie that's title provides an accurate one-word evaluation of its quality.

Rating: *** (out of 4)
Last edited: 1 January 2009 15:50:11
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