In thinking of "Good," the troubled and tangled adaptation of C.P. Taylor's morality play that examines a "good" German swept into the Hitler madness of the late 1930s, this penance came to mind: Forgive me for what I have done, and what I have failed to do. The moral? Action and inaction can each produce devastating results.
These are the sins that rest heavy on the shoulders of John Halder, the apprehensive and passive university professor played by Viggo Mortensen at the center of "Good." He's a liberal, a progressive intellectual who nevertheless stands silently by and watches books being burned outside his classroom window -- at least, that's all that is burning in the beginning, but the table has been set.
Given the title, it's no surprise that Halder is a stand-in for the good citizens of the world, with Hitler and his regime the face of evil. Taylor, the grandson of Russian Jews who fled a growing tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, uses the Holocaust to examine the internal struggle when what we believe and who we believe ourselves to be bump up against a harsh reality. The play was his last, some say his best work, and first performed in London in 1981, just a week before his death at 52.
Regrettably, the long-delayed adaptation from director Vicente Amorim and screenwriter John Wrathall gets crushed by the weight of trying to be something more; it's really just the story of a rather ordinary but disappointing man. The filmmakers reach for metaphor and allegory, but it comes at the expense of an emotional connection. There are moments when you feel as if you could see yourself in the good professor's shoes, but not enough of them to leave you shaken by the consequences of his moral cowardice. Halder is more weak than good and so his fall from grace is less surprising, less painful and less torturous than it should be.
As the film opens, it is 1937 and Halder is being driven to SS headquarters. To enter the SS building with Halder is to feel a chill -- so much space it diminishes all within it, every footfall rings hollow. It turns out the professor's novel on mercy killing -- a dying wife begs the loving husband for release -- has essentially landed him on the Nazis' literary Top 10. With the slightest blink of an eye, the barest slackening of the chin, Mortensen telegraphs Halder's relief that he's not a target; at the same time, you know he understands his fears can never be exposed.
But the Nazis know this is a man who can be used, who can dress-up the "final solution" in compassion and mercy for them. "Do you think you can write us a paper?" "Yes, I suppose I could." And in that exchange his fate is sealed.
Like Germany, Halder's life is at a precipice. The film flashes back to 1933, where his home is anything but a refuge, with a senile mother and the novel's inspiration (played by Gemma Jones); an unbalanced and distracted wife (Anastasia Hille) and a couple of children, all with pressing needs. As his world spins out of control, Halder is haunted by a hallucinatory chorus of Jews, hollow-eyed and gaunt, providing surreal musical accompaniment to the horrific events that are unfolding -- a device that no doubt worked better on stage.
Salvation comes in the form of a student and the perfect Aryan mistress, Jodie Whittaker, in her first major film role since an impressive start opposite Peter O'Toole in 2006's "Venus." Hers is the first seduction of Halder, Hitler's is the second. Jason Isaacs' Maurice -- his best friend, a psychoanalyst, a Jew and increasingly a troubling inconvenience -- serves as Halder's conscience.
As Germany slides toward hell, so does Halder. The noose tightens each time he says "yes," but Amorim lets the concessions come far too easily, and the toll they take on Halder is, like the man, too muted. Even his final reckoning, when Halder is face to face with the camps he's had a hand in shaping at least philosophically, is frustrating and unsatisfying. We should be standing there next to him, devastated; instead we're left sitting at a distance.
Mortensen continues to stretch as an actor. The coiled violence that radiated through every cell of his body as a Russian gangster in "Eastern Promises" is replaced by a skittish uncertainty in "Good" that is palpable as he reaches again and again to adjust his wire-rimmed glasses. Whittaker, who completely inhabited the tough, knowing teen in "Venus," wears her doe-eyed innocence here as effortlessly as her silk dresses.
Amorim, a promising Brazilian director, made his feature film debut in 2003 with the affecting "The Middle of the World," which follows an impoverished family of seven who bicycle nearly 2,000 miles to Rio de Janeiro in search of work. But it is a Grand Canyon-size leap to go from a charming and whimsically intimate film based on a true story to adapting a weighty and esoteric play like "Good." Unfortunately, the material seems too much for him (as it might well be for even more experienced hands).
It is not surprising that evil in the form of the Holocaust, with its millions of tragedies, continues to draw filmmakers like moths to a flame. Some of the best, including Spielberg, have been there before Amorim. And at least four other films examining aspects of the Nazi imprint -- "The Reader," "Defiance," "Valkyrie" and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" -- are in theaters this season along with "Good."
To those who wonder if we really need Hollywood to give us more Holocaust stories, I would argue yes, just better ones than we get with "Good."
MPAA rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall, Beverly Hills. Opens wider in January.