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Non-Review Review: The Good Man

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

Films about social justice can occasionally seem a bit clunky. Part of this is down to the way that most seem to have been conceived as simplistic morals rather than engaging stories, but there’s also a tendency to earnestly moralise in a manner that condescends to the audience. The Good Man manages to avoid the worst of these problems with a smartly-constructed third act that dovetails its two central narratives into one another, and because it accepts that the problem with our attitudes towards disadvantage and poverty in the rest of the world isn’t down to a simply lack of awareness. It is, the film suggests, easy to know about a problem, and easy to try to help. Understanding, on the other hand, is a far more challenging proposition.

We're all connected...

We’re all connected…

The Good Man centres on two stories unfolding simultaneously in Belfast and South Africa. One sees a hard-working family man steal a taxi, leading indirectly to an accident that gets a stranger killed. Feeling responsible – even though the police assure him he “did nothing wrong” – Michael sees his life fall apart in a decidedly middle-class manner. He’s passive-aggressive to his wife. his daughter becomes distant and picks up on the aggression. His paper work is late. He stays away for extended periods. He starts fights with yobs. His best friend worries that he is having an affair.

Meanwhile, The Good Man also keeps us appraised of the situation in South Africa. Sifiso is a teenager living in one of South Africa’s expansive townships. His family has been promised a house, under South Africa’s constitutional-enforced socio-economic rights. One of the ironies of the great inequities in South Africa is the fact that the constitution was constructed to install all these obligations between the government and the people, all these services that the people can demand by right. The problem, of course, is that the country lacks the material wealth to follow through on these enforceable laws.

Sing when you're winning...

Sing when you’re winning…

The two stories start out completely disconnected. It’s only an hour in that we see a connection established in a way that isn’t purely thematic. To be fair, the movie does a nice job establishing the connections between Northern Ireland and South Africa, two troubled regions of the world undergoing their own responses to changing political circumstances. We start with an overly earnest discussion of post-colonial Africa in a South African classroom, while Michael watches a youngster erecting a Union flag in Northern Island.

The paths taken by both political entities are very different, though, and The Good Man struggles to find too much overlap. The planned demolition of the townships in South Africa is juxtaposed with the Northern Irish policy of urban renewal, as Michael helps his best friend’s mother move out of her old house. The problem with such comparisons is that they feel a little bit clunky, a little trite. The incidents are broadly similar, but there’s a wealth of nuance to each that is lost in a crude “like for like” attempt to compare.

Police help...

Police help…

That said, The Good Man does raise some prudent points. Most obviously, Michael’s guilt over a random incident that unfolded directly in front of him is effectively contrasted with his loose understanding of bigger tragedies unfolding half the world away. Michael inserts himself into the life of the man who died in that taxi incident, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about the details of South African social policies.

It’s a very smart point, and one that is made with just enough skill that The Good Man doesn’t seem condescending or patronising. In fact, the way that the two stories connect is thoughtful and well-observed, handled with enough skill that it avoids falling back on stock morals. The problem isn’t that Michael is unaware of the difficulties facing Sifiso, or even that he lacks the will to help. It’s that he doesn’t completely understand (and can’t completely relate to) the consequences of his own actions when those consequences are concealed or obscured by thousands of miles.

How many roads must a man walk down?

How many roads must a man walk down?

There is a major problem with The Good Man, though. Michael’s story is just less interesting than that featuring Sifiso. His sense of angst and personal responsibility feels a little gratuitous and indulgent when compared to events unfolding in the South African story. The characters seem more vibrant in that story, the drama seems more real and more compelling. Aidan Gillen does a wonderful job in the lead role, but Michael just feels a little too shallow and generic, too underdeveloped. As a result, The Good Man doesn’t hit as hard as it could.

It’s a shame, because the South African plot is much more interesting. The poverty and the suffering of a people who enshrining a legal obligation on their government to help them, more than a decade after enacting their constitution, makes for more engaging drama. We follow Sifiso and his uncle as they steal power from the government to give to the people. “We’re just trying to make the government do what they promised,” Sifiso’s uncle explains.

First world problems...?

First world problems…?

When Michael studies the plans to build a massive factory in South Africa, he’s a bit confused about the land allocated to the project. “Don’t the people own that land?” he asks. His colleague clarifies, “The government owns it.” Morality tales about those who have and those who don’t can frequently turn into extended civics lessons, but at least civic lessons on South African political theory are more interesting than simplistic moral conclusions.

The Good Man would be a much stronger film if it expanded upon these ideas, about the divide between a democratically-elected government with a legally-enforceable obligation to provide materially for its citizens and those people it is supposed to serve. Unfortunately, The Good Man only teases these ideas, which means that the movie’s moral complexity only really develops during the film’s last third.

An education...

An education…

Still, The Good Man is a pretty solid example of issue-based cinema, even if the moral complexity hinted at in its final ten minutes would really be better served if expanded and developed over the entire film. It’s beautifully directed by Phil Harrison, and it looks and sounds lovely. It suffers at times from being a little too shallow or simplistic, and even a bit naive, but is redeemed by a surprisingly thoughtful ending.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

2 Responses

  1. Great review. This ones sounds interesting and I’ve added it to my watch list. I’ve been impressed with Aiden Gillen in the past so I’m looking forward to seeing him a in new lead role.

    • I think Gillen really is the best Irish actor to really burst on to the scene in the past five or ten years (basically, the best since Cillian Murphy). Gillen is a work horse who has been around a while, but it’s great to see him finally earning his deserved recognition. I actually admire how he splits his work fairly evenly between the States and here in Ireland. He was on one of our best-loved crime dramas while doing Game of Thrones. I saw him on stage while he was doing The Wire. I really admire that, and Gillen is one of those Irish actors who I think could really elevate Irish film and television.

      The BBC can get people like Kenneth Branagh or Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart to do television in their home country. I honestly believe that is one of the reasons they are among the best broadcasters in the world. To be fair, Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson come home frequently to do films, but actors like Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell now mostly work abroad. I don’t know if it’s their choice or if we don’t actively pursue them. If we had more actors like Gillen, Ireland would be a much strong cultural centre for television and film.

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