Mortensen stars as German literature professor John Halder, a generally "good" man who is inadvertently sucked into the Nazi regime by his views on euthenasia and his inability to resist the lures of prestige. It's a difficult thing to imagine, I know, but somehow this strange casting of the rugged gent best known for his regal ambitions in the Lord of The Rings trilogy works perfectly.
The story is based on the complicated, nuanced and incredibly clever play of the same name by CP Taylor. While the Nazi party has provided more cinema sustenance than any other time in the past, present or future, this remains a worthy contribution to the hefty catalogue. The emotional journeys of Halder are numerous and extreme, but achieved with a slow transition that barely seems possible for such a huge shift. He goes from a man who has written a novel about the ordeal of life with his sick mother to an honorary SS member; a married man caring from his family to a divorced man living with a lover half of his age; an amicable friend of a Jewish doctor to ... well, I don't want or especially need to finish that sentence. Needless to say that each of these transitions is so intense and moving that it is difficult not to be shaken
A large part of the credit for the impact of the story has to go to Mortensen. Playing against type he not only looks but sounds and feels like his character. The cowardly inability to face up to the moral questions thrown up amidst his rapidly changing life. and the confusing state induced by the maddening pace of events around him, are captured beautifully by Mortensen's performance. And when the whole vile picture becomes clear to him, his frantic state of terrified understanding is neither allowed to pass quietly by nor hammered home with unnecessary grandstanding.
Of course, significant credit has to go to the late Mr Taylor, the scribe of this excellent play. The picture he builds through these gradual changes of character amidst huge changes in circumstance is really a work of immense skill. To capture the difficult situation that must have been true for so many ordinary Germans paralysed by events of the time is a goal much harder than that aimed for by the many writers and filmmakers who glorify the heroes of the War. Converting it to the big screen, however, was no mean feat. Austrian director Vicente Amorim takes on the tricky task, hampered by the knowledge that this is his first directorial outing in the English language. Oddly his work with the actors is the best aspect of the screen adaptation, with every member of the cast putting in a good performance. Where he falls a little short is making the material his own. Moments of surreal intrusions by Mahler compositions aid him in the process of adapting the stage script to the screen, but beyond this there is very little to distinguish this from any stage version. And that is a real shame.
Overall though, this is an excellent film. Powerful and moving writing is supplemented by an intense, thoughtful and well-balanced performance from the lead actor that more than does justice to its material. The lack of visual flair may be a little disappointing but this is a far less problematic directorial decision than swamping the material in cinematic scenes that undermine the good points of the work itself.