Film review – Good (2008)

John Halder (Viggo Mortensen)

John Halder (Viggo Mortensen)

In the last twelve months there have been several films tackling the very complex issue of how German people living during the Nazi era responded to the horrors of the Holocaust. Now comes Good, an adaptation of a 1981 play by the British playwright Cecil Philip Taylor. Directed by Austrian director Vicente Amorim, Good is a portrait of John Halder, a man who despite seeing himself as a good person still allows himself to become drawn into the upper echelons of the Nazi party. While The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas presented the innocent perspective of a child and Valkyrie presented a very Hollywood and uncomplicated depiction of men opposed to Hitler, Good is more interesting. Halder opposes Hitler but is so lacking in courage to act that he allows himself to be swept along by the tide and resorts to self-denial. He prefers to keep his head down rather than speak out but finds himself in a very difficult situation when the Nazis react favourably to a novel he wrote about euthanasia. Also unlike Hanna Schmitz in The Reader, Halder can’t elicit sympathy through being uneducated or make the excuse of supposedly being put in a position of just following orders. He is a literary professor and author and through the suffering of his Jewish friend Maurice, he knows exactly what sorts of injustices are occurring.

John and Anne (Jodie Whittaker)

John and Anne (Jodie Whittaker)

Visually Amorim evokes the feel of 1970s European cinema as the over-exposed cinematography in Good gives each shot the distinctive glowing and radiant look, that in particular evokes the work of Bernardo Bertolucci. Unfortunately Good falters with the use of some very heavy-handed mise-en-scene. For example, Anna, the student Halder has an affair with, is irritatingly introduced always dressed in red as an incredibly blunt visual clue to her role in the film. Viggo Mortensen demonstrated just how fine an actor he can be in David Cronenberg‘s A History of Violence and Eastern Promises but as Halder, Amorim often reduces him a series of meek looks and awkward body language to indicate that he is a mild academic type who lacks the ability to act on his convictions. Performances from the supporting cast are a little better, especially Jason Isaacs (Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films) as Maurice. Also, Jodie Whittaker, who made a brilliant film début opposite Peter O’Toole in Venus, is terrific as Anne.

Good is not a bad film but it would have benefited from stronger direction to make the transition from stage to screen more effective. While it is not Mortensen’s best work, he is still a commanding presence on screen and does a fine job ensuring that Halder remains a sympathetic character despite his devastating compromises. The final long shot of Halder’s visit to a concentration camp is stunning and the final line that Halder mutters in despair redeems many of Good‘s other faults.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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