World War II is the source of countless fascinating dramatic stories. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that every true story from World War II needs to be made into a film. Diplomatic relations don’t always have a dramatic impact that sets the hearts and minds of viewers aflame — we learned that from the famous opening crawl of The Phantom Menace, speaking of trade disputes with the triumphant John Williams score soaring in the background. The Good Traitor falls into that very trap, taking a narrative that may well be interesting on paper and failing to translate it into anything particularly cinematic. The result is a dull, listless drama that despite its best efforts doesn’t manage to make much of an impact.
Henrik (Ulrich Thomsen) is the Danish ambassador to the United States on the eve of World War II, spending his days in American hobnobbing with President Roosevelt alongside his clever wife (Charlotte, the daughter of a high-ranking American colonel, who is played by the always wonderful Denise Gough) and two daughters. When the Nazis invade Denmark, however, he stands at a crossroads. To continue to serve a collaborating Danish government would be to side with the Nazis, something he is determined not to do. So instead, Henrik goes rogue, declaring himself an independent entity representing free Denmark and drawing ire from his colleagues back home. He offers up Greenland to the Americans as a site for a military base in a bid for protection (and access to Denmark’s frozen assets in New York, no small consideration), something he arguably has no authority to do but does anyway.
All of this is unquestionably a cool story: it would make an excellent book or history podcast. But where it falters is the indisputable fact that it just isn’t very cinematic. Everything has to be explained, extensively, endlessly. There’s almost no action or narrative thrust throughout the entire film, just talking. The only drama is interpersonal, as Henrik has an affair with his wife’s sister. Denise Gough does her best to inject some much-needed energy into the proceedings, all withering glares and barely concealing rage at her husband’s infidelity. Bit it isn’t enough. Thomsen manages the solemnity of the material, but he’s more or less a charisma vacuum for the majority of The Good Traitor.
There are a few brief shining moments where the sheer enormity of what he’s done is powerful. In combining this storyline with the marital strife between Henrik and Charlotte, however, it muddles the waters. It’s also a little unclear of what his efforts actually accomplish. If it’s resistance for resistance’s sake, that’s one thing, but The Good Traitor seems to imply that it had some tangibly beneficial effect on Denmark. Perhaps it saves the soul of Denmark, by serving as a symbol of opposition to Nazi rule when the common international perception of the time was that the Danish people allowed themselves to be steamrolled by German thugs and gave up with barely a shot fired? Whatever it is, it isn’t enough of a hook to make the emotional weight of what should be a moving war drama resonate with audiences. The stakes never feel particularly high. They regularly mention that Henrik’s actions would be considered treason by the compromised Danish government, and could therefore be punished by execution, but no one in the film seems to treat that as an actual potential outcome. He handwaves aside the possibility of his death, and with no one else particularly concerned, it signals to the audience that we don’t need to be worried on his behalf. (Also, the choice to frame the story with scenes of Henrik and Charlotte two decades in the future take the wind out of the sails of any potential dramatic tension even further.)
In the hands of a more canny director, stronger sentiments likely could have been wrong from The Good Traitor’s most dramatic scenes. It’s easy to imagine Spielberg intuitively knowing how to create maximum emotional impact through a sense of national pride and an inspiring image of wartime resistance. But Christina Rosendahl’s directing style is so flat, so understated, that it fails to communicate the high drama of the film’s events either through words or visuals. Even the moments that should have an edge-of-your-seat sense of tension are sapped of all energy and played calmly, as though the entire cast was given a Valium.
The Good Traitor has undeniably good intentions. In a film landscape where American and British war experiences suck up all the oxygen, it’s nice to see a lesser-known story from a smaller European country get some attention. But this tale of Danish resistance through diplomacy is inherently uncinematic, and neither the director nor the actors are up to the task of making it so through sheer force of will. It is, unfortunately, a dull affair, and is likely to bore all but the most ardent World War II buffs.