Monday, April 20, 2009

GOOD - compelling study of moral corruption

Cinema sells stories of monsters and angels - Hitler and Schindler. Rarely do we find a movie that shows us the unpalatable truth: most people are, when nudged by a little flattery, likely to take the easy path of self-interest. We are callow creatures, but as Ripley put it, "Well, whatever you do, however terrible, however hurtful, it all makes sense, doesn't it, in your head. You never meet anybody that thinks they're a bad person."

GOOD is a facile title for a movie that deals with precisely this complicated, unpalatable truth, in the most savage of circumstance, Germany in the 1930s. Handsomely shot and beautifully acted, the movie deftly shows us the moral deterioration of a well-meaning but ultimately easily corruptible academic, played by Viggo Mortensen. As the movie opens, he's an uncomplaining, but frustrated middle-aged man, struggling to please a depressed wife, care for a chronically ill mother and manage his children. His personal struggle is reflected in a novel he writes about euthanasia for the chronically ill.

Years later, and this good man is seduced, first by an adoring young student (Jodie Whitaker) and second, by a clever Nazi official who, with a few charming words and reassurances, persuades the academic to write a paper advocating euthanasia of mentally and physically handicapped. After all, isn't it better to be inside, influencing policy, rather than carping on the sidelines? Mark Strong, in a cameo role, is petrifyingly efficient as the recruiting officer. Even more interesting is the character played by Steven Mackintosh - a brutal SS thug who will organise "spontaneous" anti-Semitic riots with a boyish charm and vulnerability that challenges us to with-hold our sympathy.

What makes this film compelling is that it treads the fine line between empathy and sympathy. I don't sympathise with the "good Nazis" but I do empathise. It's all too plausible to see "good men do nothing", or rather think that they are doing nothing when really they are actively enabling a regime they know to be evil. The only truly sympathetic character is that of the Jewish psychologist, played by Jason Isaacs. It's a brilliant performance in a memorable role.

GOOD played Toronto 2008 and opened in Hungary, the US and Brazil in 2008. It is currently on release in the UK and in Australia. It opens in Spain on May 22nd; in New Zealand on June 4th and in Argentina on October 1st.

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