Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen) was, during the 1940s, the Danish Ambassador the the United States, and his main struggle was making the Union care about Denmark falling under the German Army. A historical footnote, he seems like one of the good guys on paper. But is there moral complexity under his seemingly good intentions? Or, do good intentions and actions come with bad effects? And do those bad effects outweigh someone’s good actions? The movie about Henrik, The Good Traitor, depicting a diplomat’s world, comes with those murky questions.
The Good Traitor follows Henrik as he navigates the world of diplomacy as well as the world of people who use summer as a verb. Populating the latter are some members of his extended family including his wife Charlotte (Denise Gough) and her sister Zilla (Zoe Tapper), the wife of his best friend (Ross McCall). Henrik spent off screen time with Zilla China during the previous decade. Their days in China make for great stories for their children, but it’s obvious that they haven’t left those days behind, which causes complications with Henrik’s wife. It also seems like Henrik’s infidelity dictates the allegiances that he chooses.
The Good Traitor, therefore, has the bare bones of a good costume drama. There’s this tinge of darkness within every frame. Some scenes unfold in slow motion through ominous music, reminders of children playing while the world is at war. It has damp gardens and seemingly inert characters. The same inert quality exists within Henrik as a character as well as with Thomsen’s performance. These feel like deliberate choices. It’s understandable that older men can manifest their morality more subtly. But it doesn’t feel like he’s fighting when he’s supposed to. That’s especially true when he’s fighting with Charlotte. If you can’t convince your wife that you love her, you can’t convince me that you hate Hitler.
The movie must have at least one brilliant idea and it does, that idea cascading from one scene to another. Henrik finally found a reason for the Americans to care about Hitler turning the Danish government into his puppet. When his pitch to State Department official Adolf Berle (Burn Gorman) goes awry, he enlists Charlotte to charm President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Henry Goodmann) to agree with his idea. The movie surrounds the scene between Charlotte and FDR with mixed symbolism, proposing a world of equals.
Thematically, there are a lot of interesting things here, like why would Charlotte, during the opening scene, stab a minor figure of the resistance. It also has its villain who is, um, Hitler, a figure that the movie uses through his voice and not his figure. It’s too bad that the central and largest piece of the puzzle seems like he’s trying not to be compelling. A key moment during The Good Traitor‘s third act is Henrik’s radio address to the Danish people, with the help of the passionate people around him. The movie should have been about those characters instead of him.
The Good Traitor is already out both in America and Denmark, and is coming to Canada on April 13.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Biography, Drama
- Release Date: 4/13/2021
- Directed by: Christina Rosendahl
- Starring: Burn Gorman, Denise Gough, Henry Goodman, Ross McCall, Ulrich Thomsen, Zoë Tapper
- Produced by: Jonas Frederiksen
- Written by: Christina Rosendahl, Dunja Gry Jensen, Kristian Bang Foss
- Studio: Danmarks Radio (DR), Det Danske Filminstitut, Nimbus Film Productions, SF Studios