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Mother Night Review

Image for Mother Night

It's Germany, 1938, and playwright Howard W. Campbell Jr. (Nick Nolte) is faced with a dilemma: if he agrees to become an American spy posing as a Nazi sympathiser, sending vital coded messages to the US via anti-Semitic radio broadcasts, then his countrymen will mistake his heroism for the worst kind of treachery.

★★★★

Normally films this good are trumpeted to the heavens. But then Mother Night is by no means a typical movie. It mixes complex ideological discourse with career-best performances, and the saddened irony of Kurt Vonnegut with the terrifying reality of Hitler's Germany. In other words, it's a hard sell, but a hell of a rewarding movie. Vonnegut himself - upon whose novel it's based - puts in a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance, offering a stamp of approval for what is an extremely successful attempt at taking a notably difficult novel to the screen.

Nolte is electrifying as Howard Campbell, an American journalist living in Germany, who finds himself caught up in a web of deception and loss of identity. The mysterious G-man recruits him to help spy against the Nazis - Campbell delivers coded pro-Nazi broadcasts that help the Allies by advocating Hitler. Somewhere along the way, the lines become blurred, a hero becomes a villain and a man loses his life.

Gordon, whose previous effort A Midnight Clear was as marginalised as this is almost bound to be, is obviously a filmmaker of considerable talent. Here he not only elicits sterling work from the likes of Arkin, Kirsten Dunst and Lee (doing another Laura Palmeresque double-up), but drags a career-best performance out of Nolte, who is mesmeric, devastating and ultimately devastated as a man caught between unacknowledged heroism and a life destroyed.

Mother Night is brave, uncompromising, insightful and delicately moving. A movie that offers no easy rewards, this is still a deeply satisfying experience.