Film Reviews 2009

"Good" Review

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It would be difficult to imagine a more tentative project to undertake than a Holocaust film for numerous reasons. The historical resonance still proving an understandably sensitive or harrowing issue for many audience members requires a certain delicacy in storytelling, faithfully and accurately depicting the horrific events in a fashion just visceral enough to drive the point home without being so gruesome as to alienate audiences. At the same time, the events of the second world war have been approached cinematically so frequently that it becomes equally perilous to avoid restating facts or perspectives than have been presented countless times before, making the latest effort to do so irrelevant. It is in this regard that Good, director Vicente Amorim's adaptation of C.P. Taylor's theatrical production excels - while the film may not be the most harrowing or affecting portrayal of the tragedies of the time, the craftily different approach to which such matters are breached makes for a compelling, if occasionally flawed telling.

There can be little doubt that Amorim's film is hardly an easy watch from its dour subject matter to heavy emotional questions, ranging from euthanasia debates to the values of loyalty versus self preservation and the true scope of one's choices (drawing explicit parallels to contemporary issues as well as past ones), but avoids self-righteous preaching in favour of quietly needling questions. Indeed, Good proves an odd myriad of both decidedly mainstream and unconventional elements, making the story feel somewhat uneven from scene to scene. The sturdy script nonetheless proves rather conventionally crafted for the intriguing premise, with few meaty lines and many supporting characters reduced to stagey, contrived appearances which detract periodically. Yet simultaneously, several unexpected but greatly welcome quirky touches emerge from what may otherwise have descended into formula, such as the odd moment of out of place but oddly fitting humour, or the addition of protagonist Halder experiencing musical hallucinations heralding momentous decisions in his life which impact others. It is ultimately these unorthodox touches which distinguish Good from the countless other films tackling similar subject matter, going about its business in such a laudably nuanced fashion that comparisons become almost unnecessary.

Where other filmmakers may have sought out soaring emotional crescendos building into an explosion of mainstream melodrama, Amorim keeps the intensity festering on a dull burn, his quiet, subtle telling of the story making it all the more sickeningly credible and resonant than a contrived downpour of contrived emotion. However, this does not go to say that the film shirks emotional intensity in the least, but rather builds it so subtly that by the gruesome climax, with shockingly vivid depictions of an SS attack on a Jewish ghetto and a desolate concentration camp sequence the viewer is all the more devastated by the emotional vice which has without warning ensnared them, making Good's finale one which will stick with most viewers for quite some time afterwards.

That being said, the film is hardly without its concerns, as the nonlinear storyline can prove disconcertingly jumpy, undermining some of the emotional tension, and the decision for all German characters to speak with upper class British accents may infuriate some audience members tired of such cultural appropriation. Similarly, Simon Lacey's musical score proves overly melodramatic and distracting where a quieter, more subtle score more in keeping with the tone of the film would have done wonders. However, the unassumingly innovative cinematography (including a Wellesian five minute tracking shot at the finale) is superb, making perfect use of the visually alluring Budapest locations and ably capturing the excellent period costumes and sets.

Designed as a talk piece, the slight imbalance of the script leaves it primarily up to the actors to keep the film afloat, and they mercifully do not disappoint. Viggo Mortensen is superb as Halder, the passionate professor drawn into a world he does not fully understand and continually finding the repercussions of his decisions spreading wider than he could ever have guessed. Mortensen is far from a showy actor, making him the ideal choice for such a character, as, scattered on the outside but festering on the inside, Mortensen conveys the heart of the character far more with his silence than with his words, emanating emotion with every fibre of his being. Jason Isaacs gives a similarly powerful performance as Maurice, Halder's Jewish therapist and close friend and the film's most poignant emotional hook. As Maurice is gradually stripped of his privileges, rights, freedom and dignity step by step, equally outraged by his friend's involvement in the affiliation condemning him, Isaacs transforms from casually confident to beaten down but fiercely outraged, coming alight with fiery intensity. Jodie Whittaker, fresh off a mesmerizing debut in 2006's Venus once again generates charming charisma as Halder's impressionable student and later wife, though her chirpy enthusiasm does prove slightly out of keeping with the more dour tone of later scenes. Mark Strong proves impressively intimidating as a surly Nazi official, but Gemma Jones manages to both delight and infuriate simultaneously as Halder's ill and mentally unstable mother (adding poignancy to his euthanasia stance) who wavers between powerful and affecting and irritatingly over the top, making it difficult to sympathize with one who should have been the sympathetic centerpiece of the film.

While hardly without its structural frustrations, the subtlety and unconventional take on very serious historical issues make Good a deeply compelling, affecting and thought-provoking morality play, mercifully avoiding preaching or Hollywood emotional wrenching in favour of quiet resonance. For any viewers looking for challenging and draining subject matter tackled from a fresh approach, Good should prove the ideal antidote to any watered down mainstream efforts.
Last edited: 22 January 2009 14:04:18
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