This film adaptation, nearly thirty years after its initial appearance, of C.P. Taylor’s play about a German academic sucked almost uncomprehendingly into complicity in Nazi crimes, is a curious piece of work. Although it boasts a scrupulously considered turn by Viggo Mortensen in the lead—one very different from his work under David Cronenberg in both “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises”—and occasionally veers into apparent surrealism, it’s generally cautious, stilted and—given the subject—curiously unaffecting. “Good” just isn’t very.
Mortensen plays John Halder, an abstracted, odd-duck literature professor we first encounter in 1933, when he’s summoned to a meeting with an official of the new National Socialist government’s ministry of “information” (read, propaganda). There the nervous fellow, afraid that he might be accused of something, learns that Hitler himself was impressed by a novel he’d once written, about a man who kills his terminally-ill wife. He’s asked to write a paper on the subject of euthanasia, obviously to lend a certain intellectual cachet to a policy the regime has in mind.
Halder—a harried husband who must care not only for his troubled wife (Anastasia Hille) and two young children but for his addled elderly mother (Gemma Jones)—is clearly pleased by the recognition from on high, even though he’s no supporter of Nazi book burnings and his closest friend is the Jewish psychologist Maurice (Jason Isaacs). He’s also flattered by the attentions of an exuberant—and very attractive—student, Anne (Jodie Whittaker).
What follows is Halder’s descent, both personal and professional, as he leaves his wife for Anne, grows increasingly detached from his mother, shows himself less than ideally helpful to Maurice, and becomes not just a member of the Nazi party but a high-ranking SS officer. It’s not that he’s entirely unaware of the ethical issues along the way, but he’s pretty much carried along heedlessly, allowing himself to be paralyzed by fear whenever called upon to do anything that might put him in danger (particularly when Maurice asks his help in securing passage out of the country). It’s no wonder the guy experiences odd moments when he thinks some of the people about him are singing (Mahler tunes, as it happens)—the surrealistic touch in the ordinarily more naturalistic, if not realistic, setting.
That musical motif becomes part of the final scene set, quite predictably, in a concentration camp that Halder’s visiting on an official mission. He’s obsessed with trying to locate Maurice, who’d been rounded up and deported with—as he’s learned—Anne’s connivance.
This no doubt has the potential to be powerful stuff, but as Taylor and adapter John Wrathall present it, it has a schematic feel, especially since the character of Halder—while very carefully presented, in all the externals, by Mortensen—remains a pretty vacuous fellow in the essentials. The point, of course, is how a basically good man can be carried along, fatalistically, to the depths of evil without even realizing what he’s becoming. But for the lesson to work, the figure at the center has to be somebody whose humanity seems genuine. That’s not the case here. And even if it were, the “slippery slope” thesis implicit in the piece is essentially absolutist, leaving no room for the ambiguities and shades of gray that are elements of every ethical calculation—even in the most grotesque of situations, as the Nazi era undoubtedly was. Things are just too simplistic as this picture presents them.
And except for Mortensen, the execution is pedestrian. None of the supporting performers register very strongly, their echt-British accents coming across as especially out of place in this context and most of them overplaying heavily. Visually the film is more impressive, with Andrew Laws’s production design and Andrew Dunn’s widescreen cinematography making for attractive images. But the utterly prosaic direction of Vicente Amorim doesn’t take advantage of them (or of the acting talent at his disposal). The result is that the picture remains oddly flat and uninvolving, with even the supposedly poetic musical intrusions coming off as affected, detracting from the drama rather than enhancing it.
Maybe “Good” has just gone stale since 1981. But the problem may lie deeper. This adaptation is drab and lifeless enough to make one suspect it was never much of a play in the first place.