Fascinating backroom politics circa WWII are undermined by banal marital melodrama in Danish director Christina Rosendahl’s “The Good Traitor,” resulting in a so-so period drama that raises more questions than it answers. The film centers on the life of diplomat-gone-rogue Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen, stoic), who was posted to Washington, D.C., as Danish Ambassador in 1939. When the Nazis occupy Denmark on April 9, 1940, Kauffmann declares himself the only true representative of the free Danish people and goes on to make a number of high-risk autonomous decisions that, in the long run, help to free his homeland. Unfortunately, the details of Kauffmann’s wheeling and dealing are continually undercut by the film’s concentration on his rather unusual personal life, rendered here in trite narrative clichés.
During a long and distinguished foreign service career, Kauffmann enabled the U.S. to install strategic military bases on Greenland (an autonomous territory of Denmark) during WWII. Post-war, he facilitated Denmark’s entry into the United Nations and N.A.T.O. But given Rosendahl’s focus on the personal as well as the political, the film is bookended by a more lurid detail: his 1963 murder by his brittle, alcoholic wife Charlotte (Ireland-born Denise Gough, a wee bit over-the-top) at a Danish sanatorium where he was being treated for prostate cancer, followed by her suicide.
The narrative’s main action takes place between 1939, when Kauffmann presents his credentials to Franklin Delano Roosevelt (British actor Henry Goodman, looking distractingly like Robert De Niro) at a surprisingly empty White House and May 1945, when he returns to the newly-liberated Denmark as a hero. At first, Kauffmann needs his access to FDR finessed by Charlotte, who as the daughter of U.S. Navy Rear Admiral William Dugald MacDougall, knew the Roosevelts from childhood.
Meanwhile, further complicating matters on the Kauffmanns’ home front, is a reunion with Charlotte’s glamorous sister Zilla (attractive British actress Zoë Tapper), the wife of politician Mason Sears (Ross McCall) and the one-time lover of Henrik. As Charlotte notices that there is still a spark between her sibling and her husband, it triggers ongoing paroxysms of jealousy. It also leads to an unintentionally humorous scene where Charlotte confides her rage and resentment to FDR, who responds dispassionately, “Eleanor is in love with her female friend.”
Kauffmann is helped in his mission to rescue the Danish reputation and homeland by high-minded, younger colleague Povl Bang-Jensen (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, without much to do, but looking dandy in three-piece gray woolen suits). Perhaps the film’s best scene shows Bang-Jensen chalking a map of the world on the embassy floor as Kauffmann visually drives home his theory that Greenland could be a crucial location for Allied Forces.
But not every scene offers such a canny blend of showing and telling. It would have been nice to know more about how Kauffmann and Bang-Jensen converted Denmark’s gold reserve to cover the expenses of the embassy in the U.S. and others around the world that refused to take orders from Denmark’s quisling government.
Likewise, one of the film’s most suspenseful scenes also gets short shrift: Kauffmann and Bang-Jensen are betrayed by embassy chargé d’affaires Einar Blechingberg (Esben Dalgaard) and in danger of deportation to Denmark, but luckily, Kauffmann’s connection with assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle (Burn Gorman) saves them at the last minute.
It’s not just the screenplay by Kristian Bang Foss, Rosendahl, Dunja Gry Jensen that is out of balance. The alternation between the personal and political stories rarely allows either to build up a head of steam. Indeed, the editing allows too many longueurs. Likewise, for a film that uses a bare minimum of locations, it looks so under-populated that it sometimes seems as if Kauffmann, his in-laws, their children, FDR and a few officials are the only ones in all of Washington, D.C. (played variously by Denmark and Hungary).
Rosendahl mainly establishes the period ambience through sound. We never see archival footage of the war, but we hear scratchy radio broadcasts of “Sieg heil” and news readers recounting the occupation of Denmark and the bombing of Britain. She also relies to an irritating extent on period tunes, typified by a scene in which Charlotte and Zilla, well-fortified by drink, sway in each other’s arms to “You Don’t Know What Love Is” while smoking their cigarettes.
With much of the action taking place Stateside, English is spoken more frequently than Danish, but the mostly British performers cast as Americans sound unnatural.