C

Good

Stories set in Germany during the rise of the Nazi party appeal to dramatists for obvious reasons. In hindsight, the Nazi menace seems so blatant, yet something in what Adolf Hitler espoused persuaded a significant number of Germans, which makes any look back at the era into a study of mob mentality, and—if handled right—an insight into where we could be headed. In Good, Vicente Amorim directs John Wrathall's adaptation of C.P. Taylor's play about a meek literature professor (here played by Viggo Mortensen) who reluctantly joins the Nazi party in order to advance his career and placate his family. The Nazis are interested in a novel Mortensen wrote—partly inspired by the burden of dealing with his mother's dementia—that seems to argue for the concept of mercy killing. They ask him to draft a paper that will offer a moral justification for human extermination, which he does, little realizing that his new friends are planning to use his logic to excuse the Holocaust.

The problem with exploring this particular time and place in fiction is that in some ways the material's too juicy to handle without leaving a splattery, unsubtle mess. Certainly Good doesn't go in for a lot of nuance. It's an old-fashioned hoke-fest, in which the otherness of Germany is connoted by having everyone speak with a British accent—including the American-born Mortensen—and in which Mortensen's wife Jodie Whittaker ironically admires the Nazi pageantry, chirping, "Anything that makes people happy can't be bad, can it?" Good is ostensibly about how Mortensen comes to enjoy the benefits of being one of the Nazis' pet intellectuals, and how he has to decide whether to jeopardize his standing by helping his best friend, Jewish psychiatrist Jason Isaacs. But any close inspection of one Aryan's dilemma gets overwhelmed by the usual prelude-to-the-Holocaust dramatic beats, with caution giving way to denial before resolving in sickening revelation. And all of this refers primarily to itself, as though people still needed convincing that the Nazis were bad dudes. Early in the film, after a government-sponsored book-burning, Mortensen grunts, "What do a load of old books have to do with life?" He means the question sarcastically, but honestly, what he's asking deserves an answer. It definitely wouldn't have done anyone involved with Good any harm to ask what relevance heavy-handed history plays have to do with the world of today.

More Movie Review