Movie Review: Good
Viggo....DON'T TURN AROUND!!! Photo courtesy Th!nkFilm.
Hindsight, as we all know, is 20/20; the clarity of succeeding events allows us a sharper and more focused analysis of inciting incidents. But is it possible for the incident itself to have a level of focus all its own, without the benefit of future knowledge? Maybe that first decision can really be seen with 20/10 clarity; not in the sense that all known variables and outcomes will be laid out and correctly predicted, but with a very sharp understanding of the importance of the decision itself at the time it is made. What if the decision you have to make is an unpopular one, perhaps by a wide margin? There is heightened clarity in the immediacy of the decision itself, and it’s understanding of short-term consequences. At that point, the future is hazy and relatively unknown, but the present is crystal clear.
If you were able to follow that, then you’d do well to read C.P. Taylor’s 1981 play Good, or at least go see the movie adaptation, starring Viggo Mortensen. These questions, about the nature of assumptions, fears and groupthink comprise the backbone of the story, set in Germany during World War II. And perhaps there is no better place for such an intellectual study as this, too. For roughly a decade, millions of otherwise normal individuals conspired to take over the known world by brute force and unthinkable acts. Now, each person did not flip the ultimate switch or sign off on ultimate declarations of war, but there is complicity in the bureaucracy that brings about these high-level decisions. Small moments, miniscule decisions, made thousands of times by real people, to get to a point of no return.
As an adaptation, Good is fairly faithful, but does have its moments of infidelity. Due in part to the creative constraints that come with expanding the small universe of a play onto the silver screen, Good finds new and exciting ways to shine, while being forced to shed some of the mechanisms that made it so successful on stage. And even these decisions are not without their consequences.
Deeply embroiled in the heart of World War II Germany, Good surrounds the actions of one man, John Halder (Mortensen). He is a mid-level university professor with a complicated wife and an ever-increasing pessimism towards the world around him. But when a blonde-haired beauty from his class begins to make sexual advances towards him, he is reawakened inside, just in time for a visit from the Office of the Chancellory regarding an obscure work of fiction he published years earlier. The novel, with a pro-euthanasia bent, has been picked up by the looming Nazi party, with obviously nefarious intent that only the foresight of history can assume. Halder is quickly brought in as a 'consultant' to the SS, where his honorary title slowly expands while balancing on the tenacity of the singular theme of his early book: euthanasia. As the steps are incremental, there is little for Halder to realize he is giving away, until he is estranged from his family and living with the picture of the Third Reich woman, donning SS suits to aid in Kristallnacht, and comforting his Jewish friend Maurice as time runs out.
For the most part, Good does it's best work when it follows the playbook given to it by its staged counterpart. The dialogue is incisive and, given what we know today, at moments absolutely horrific. The hysteria of the times come pulsing through the adulterous character of Anne (Jodie Whittaker) and give a revealing glimpse into the individual nature of dangerous group mentalities. Director Vicente Amorim is even able to enhance sequences from the play that simply cannot be portrayed otherwise. The final scene, a lengthy continuous shot of Halder at a concentration camp, is stark and exhausting in its breadth, something that simply could not be done except on film. The real hero of the film's production, however, must be Jason Isaacs, the consummate role player, as Jewish best friend Maurice. He is stern and funny and weak and honest, all within a few moments, and he absolutely steals the show. His locked jaw and steely eyes are staples of a character so mortified by his surroundings, yet unable to escape his love of country (and his own pride) until it is much too late.
However, there are elements to the film adaptation of Good that do not do justice to the strength of the staged version. Perhaps these cuts and omissions are made out of necessity, or perhaps they cannot be recreated on screen, but they are sorely missed. The biggest and most ominous omission is the lack of Hitler himself, who occupies a distinct role in the play, but is absent on screen. Playwright C.P. Taylor penned Hitler as a Chaplain-esque, slightly cartoonish caricature, giving the play a moment to breathe, and to humiliate further the underlying forces that push the whole mechanics along. It is also hard to capture the other moments on screen, the suffocating moments of decisions made late at night, or turns of phrase with unintended consequences. The heavy, word-laden stage simply cannot fit onto a screen that must also fit in love interests and villains and shattering scenes of deceit.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with Good the movie, it is unfortunate that it cannot live up to the standards it was built upon. With the exception of the lights-out Jason Isaacs, the roles portrayed are serviceable, but not overwhelming. The scenes are often beautiful or stark and depressing, but not consistently so. In the end, Good is a functional film with exciting elements, but it could certainly do with a bit of reflection on its own theatrical past. The hindsight here may show a missed opportunity.