Denise Gough in The Good Traitor (2020)
As the dramatic opening scene of The Good Traitor shows, Christina Rosendahl’s World War II historical drama starts with the potential to be an emotional rollercoaster. The introduction adds intrigue to character development, and leaves one wondering what could have led to such a violent action being portrayed on screen. But as the film gets going, the intrigue dissipates quickly. Rosendahl struggles to find a narrative strong enough to tell a story that sounds more fascinating on paper. Set in 1940s Denmark, the country is invaded by Nazi Germany with demands for immediate surrender. While the government surrenders and cooperates, Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen) refuses to take orders from the Nazis. As the Danish ambassador to the United States, Henrik declares himself independent representing Denmark, and engineers a plan to give the Danish people their freedom back. In addition to the historical drama, a more personal one unfolds. Henrik’s wife Charlotte (Denise Gough), who is frequently by his side along with their two daughters, discovers he’s having an affair. Given the uneven balance between storylines, The Good Traitor disappoints with indecisive storytelling where it’s unclear what the focus is intended to be.
In a film where dialogue is front and center, the task to make the words resonate falls heavy on the writers and actors. Unfortunately, moments of subtly are few and far between. The plot is so heavily explained all the way through, leaving little room for the actors to live and breathe through their roles. Ulrich Thomsen lacks the screen presence to carry a story written on his character’s shoulders. Denise Gough does her best to infuse energy, but while she does have some electric moments, Charlotte feels like a stock character trapped in a sea of tropes. Her character in particular turns out to be the most interesting; she has some sway with her husband’s decisions on the historical front, and a glimpse into her life at home shows she is trying to hold everything together in light of the affair. Themes of adultery and historical crossroads are channeled through her perspective, but it is Henrik’s point of view that gets the most attention. This is not to say that he should not be at the center, given the premise of this story. However, it does feel like a missed opportunity to introduce a character such as Charlotte without exploring her role beyond the surface.
One of the biggest flaws of The Good Traitor is that the story seldom moves beyond surface level. The film plays by the numbers and moves at what feels like a snail’s pace. Most of the performances come across as actors reading off cue cards. The lack of emotion and energy hinders the weight of the story. Even bombshell moments meant to shake matters up, such as an impromptu visit to Henrik and his family having dinner, fall flat. The filmmakers make it a challenge to stay engaged in a story that sounds interesting on paper, yet does not possess the cinematic pull to resonate as a feature. There are some bright glimmers of what could have been a more stylized experience. The cinematography, sound design, and music establish a strong atmosphere. The frequent use of love songs throughout is a great choice playing in contrast to the protagonist’s crumbling marriage. But these elements are quick to get lost in a film of muddled storylines and a forgettable narrative. The push-and-pull between Henrik and Charlotte’s characters brings an indecisive focus to The Good Traitor, which makes for a few heightened conversational pieces but falls short as an engaging feature.