Saturday, July 11, 2015

Good (2008)

Director: Vincente Amorim                              Writer: C.P. Taylor & John Wrathall
Film Score: Simon Lacey                                Cinematography: Andrew Dunn
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker and Steve Mackintosh

If the film Good feels as if it were written for a different actor, that’s because it was. Originally based on the stage play by Scottish author C.P. Taylor, and commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1981, the role was originally performed by the brilliant Alan Howard. All one has to do is see the BBC production of Race for the Double Helix to know how perfect he would have been in the role. The actor who was originally approached to play the lead in the film was, not surprisingly, Colin Firth, while the first choice for directors was Lone Scherfig, who has made some terrific films in her native Denmark. Now that would have been a fascinating film. But as odd as Mortensen seems at first, he does a respectable job as the shy, soft-spoken professor. Producer Miriam Segal finally settled on director Vincente Amorim, who has worked primarily in short films and television and is the primary reason that the film was such a critical failure. The production design is so sterile that it comes off as phony, especially in the concentration camp scene. The film was shot entirely in Budapest, but the poor direction doesn’t make use of the locations the way something like Milos Forman’s Amadeus does to add realism, and instead it evokes the opposite feel.

The film begins with Viggo Mortensen being called into the Reich Chancellery, afraid and unsure why they want to see him. It turns out he is an author who has written a novel that Hitler likes because the central character kills his wife who was living with an incurable illness. In a flashback Mortensen shows what his life was like at the time the novel was written. His wife was obsessed with playing the piano and he was left to care for their two children as well as his mother who was sick with TB as well as having dementia. He was also being pursued by one of his students, Jodie Whittaker, a beautiful blonde who has been taken in by National Socialism. Also on his plate is the fact that he has been threatened with dismissal from the university where he teaches because he is against the Nazi policies of book burning and censorship of curriculum. To make sense of it all, he begins writing his book. In the present, Hitler’s chief in the chancellery, Mark Strong, needs him to write a paper expressing the benefits of mercy killing. The only thing is, he still has to join the party, and so he is given an honorary position in the SS. He has also separated from his wife and is living with Whittaker and taken his mother back to her home and left her there.

After he joins the party, Mortensen is suddenly made the head of his department and everything seems to be going great. But when his best friend Jason Isaacs, a Jewish psychiatrist, discovers what he’s done it creates an irreparable rift in their relationship. The fascinating thing about the film is the underlying philosophy of what it means to be “good.” Mortensen resists the Nazis at first, but as he tells Isaacs later in the film, they are in control. Whatever they expect is what is deemed good by the society. So when he gives in to their desires it’s easy for him to rationalize his actions because they are condoned by the state. And yet while he is doing what he is supposed to, it winds up hurting the people in his life--not to mention the millions of other lives deemed worthless by his very work. The disappointment in the film comes from how well acted the thing really is. All of the principals do an exceptional job, especially Jason Isaacs as Mortensen’s Jewish friend, and Gemma Jones as Mortensen’s mother. But Anastasia Hille is also quite good as Mortensen’s ex-wife. Good had the potential to be an incredibly thought-provoking film, an almost definitive look inside the minds of those whom Daniel Jonah Goldhagen called Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Instead, it's merely a well-acted but less than gripping morality tale.

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