Onstage, British playwright C.P. Taylor’s “Good” excited less for its rather obvious parable of moral corruption than for the cinematic sweep of events as a conscience-stricken protagonist passively let himself be pushed up the ladder of Nazi favor. On film, however, this oft-revived work reveals its theatrical roots all too clearly, underlined by the decision to have a roster of German characters speaking the Queen’s English. Toplining Viggo Mortensen, shot in Budapest and directed by Brazil’s Vicente Amorim, this tepid adaptation has an international-pudding feel unlikely to spark much critical or aud enthusiasm.
First produced in 1981, the year of its author’s death (and subsequently mounted with such leading thesps as William Hurt and Charles Dance), “Good” remains a rather heavyhanded lesson about “good” people seduced by evil, albeit one that stimulated theatrically, thanks to multicast thesps and a hurtling narrative that broke the fourth wall. There’s little such novelty left in this literal-minded translation, however, leaving one aware of how broadly the characters are etched and how predictable their trajectories to tragic understanding will be.
John Halder (Mortensen) is a literature professor unnerved in 1933 by the National Socialists’ book burnings and other shows of incipient fascism. But he’s too harried by the needs of an unstable wife (Anastasia Hille), their two children and a senile mother (Gemma Jones) to take a real stand. Four years later, he’s unexpectedly summoned by the chairman of the censorship committee at Hitler’s Chancellery.
It seems that a little-noticed novel Halder once published, about a husband’s mercy killing of his terminally ill wife, has come to the regime’s favorable attention. He’s now asked to write a scholarly paper on euthanasia — presumably lending “humanist” support to plans already being secretly readied to make the master race one big eugenics experiment. Yet Halder remains oblivious to such possible applications as his party-assisted fortunes rise.
Considering its theme and setting, there’s something very wrong with a “Good” that seems merely competent, uninspired and a bit old-hat. But the milieu, characters and emotions just don’t come alive. Amorim (2003’s “The Middle of the World”) brings little personality or passion to the material, adapted in workmanlike fashion by John Wrathall. Pic’s rare stabs at more stylized expression (the protag’s recurrent delusion of people breaking out in Mahler songs, a would-be-bravura concentration-camp finale) fall flat, though they suggest a more imaginative take that could have worked better in truly cinematic terms.
The often impressive Mortensen can’t make Halder much more than a stereotypical academic milquetoast. Other perfs come off just adequate, though not for lack of effort.