Conflict of interest – The latest in a string of Holocaust-themed films fails to live up to the promise of its title

Flo Sharp 9 June 2009

Good – 2/5

Rumour has it that Good may be one of Viggo Mortensen’s last films. Judging by the film I saw last night, I am not entirely surprised. There’s nothing lacking in Mortensen’s acting. On the contrary, he performs well as protagonist John Halder, a university literature teacher whose novel on euthanasia – a channel for his ambiguous feelings about the value of his senile mother’s existence – is appropriated by the Nazis, leading him to become irreversibly involved in the Nazi Party agenda.

Mortensen brings a certain fragility which, combined with an almost awkward screen presence, effectively conveys the essential weakness of his character. Despite being an essentially ‘good’ man, caring for his mother (Gemma Jones), and taking on the burdens of domestic life when his wife is too mentally absent to cope, Halder is too easily seduced not only by the advances of one of his young students (and future wife) Anne (Jodie Whittaker), but also by the flattery of the Nazis who employ him to write their report on euthanasia, despite his lack of scientific credentials.

As well as succumbing to the celebratory spirit of the Nazi circus, the weakness in Halder’s character is further exposed when he fails to act efficiently on his friend’s behalf, a previously prosperous and charismatic Jewish psycho-analyst played by Jason Isaacs. The film uses Halder’s various relationships to explore a plethora of obvious Nazi issues. Indeed, the film rolls out a virtual catalogue of well-trodden Nazi tropes, with euthanasia, eugenics, and the Holocaust all being bandied about without enough space or time for proper exploration.

For this reason, the film doesn’t take the viewer on a journey but throws them about in the shallow waters of frayed narrative strands. The film ultimately lacks any depth or, indeed, direction, and rides chiefly on the unquenchable popularity of the subject matter itself and solid performances from Mortensen and Jason Isaacs, who imbues his supporting role with a fractious vulnerability rather than the stoicism one expects from a typical portrayal of a victim of the regime. Isaacs will be reappearing on our screens soon enough in the latest Harry Potter offering; as for Mortensen, one hopes he hasn’t been put off future cinematic endeavour by this half-hearted Nazi blockbuster.

Flo Sharp