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Thursday, August 2, 2012

THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA -- DVD review by porfle

Based on an actual event which occurred in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa in 1942, THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA (2010) is an odd, moody, atmospheric little war saga that takes advantage of its cramped settings to put much of the human drama into pinpoint focus. 

Of course, before we get shut up in that tiny U-boat for most of this two-part BBC film there's the matter of the titular event, which is rather stunning.  The Laconia is a White Star cruise ship pressed into service as a military transport and currently carrying 1,800 Italian POWs, their brutish Polish guards, and a number of civilians.  Dedicated young U-boat captain Werner Hartenstein (Ken Duken) doesn't know about the civilians and POWs, however, and can't resist such a juicy target.  A couple of well-placed torpedoes later, and the grand old tub is on her way down to Davy Jones' locker.

The great Brian Cox (MANHUNTER, X2) appears all-too-briefly as the Laconia's world-weary Captain Sharp, but the main focus is on junior officer Thomas Mortimer (Andrew Buchan), a family man about to receive very bad news from the homefront, and a German woman named Hilda Smith (RUN, LOLA, RUN's Franka Potente) posing as a British citizen so that she and her baby will be granted passage.  The grief-stricken Mortimer seeks solace from Hilda before discovering her secret, then shuns her until she reveals her own personal tragedies as a result of Hitler's Third Reich. 

There's little of the conventional use of exciting music, quick cuts, etc. to build suspense.  Instead, Hartenstein's boat slowly and methodically stalks the ship as director Uwe Jansen depicts it all in low-key, matter-of-fact style.  The sinking itself is realistically chaotic but not theatrically overwrought.  Jansen indulges himself sparingly, as in the breathtaking shot of a filled lifeboat upending on its way down to the water, its hapless passengers tumbling out like rag dolls.  SPFX consist mainly of some pretty well-rendered CGI. 

Upon realizing that there are hundreds of civilians and Italian POWs now struggling to survive in the water, lifelong sailor Hartenstein observes the rules of the sea and begins a rescue mission whereupon the women, Italians, and injured are squeezed aboard the U-156 while the lifeboats containing everyone else are tethered together to the U-boat. 
Thus begins the main dramatic thrust of the film, with Hartenstein's humanitarian instincts outweighing his military duty while his wartime enemies begin to develop a grudging respect and admiration for him and his crew.  Except, that is, for the only German civilian aboard, Hilda Smith, who can't forget that Hartenstein serves not just Germany but Hitler and the Third Reich.

Like THE LONGEST DAY, this film presents German officers realistically rather than as moustache-twirling stereotypes, including a well-cast Thomas Kretschmann (Peter Jackson's KING KONG) as Admiral Dönitz, who is sympathetic to Hartenstein's cause while trying to avert the ire of his superiors.  The crew consist of a bunch of regular guys such as rookie Fiedler (Frederick Lau), suffering a grueling initiation as a new member of the crew, and the boat's affable chief Rostau (Matthias Koeberlin), who gently reminds Hartenstein of his duty to the Fatherland at every turn.

Hartenstein himself is presented essentially as a modern-day saint, all the more so in contrast with the film's withering depiction of many Allied characters including a dithering British officer who chooses to do absolutely nothing in response to U-156's call for a rescue truce, instead passing the problem along to a U.S. Army Air Corps squad secretly stationed in the South Atlantic. 

Since the film needs a bad guy, it falls to--whoops, big surprise--the Americans to fulfill the role as a group of callow young airmen "yee-hah" their way into their bomber and set out to attack the U-boat.  (One of them, no kidding, actually says "Yippee-ki-yay.")  Despite the special conditions inherent in this particular story, I have to admit that it's a bit disconcerting to see British characters in a World War II movie pointing to an American plane and imploring their German captors to "Shoot the f**kers!"

The other big action scene in the second half of the film is one which is obligatory to any U-boat adventure--the full emergency dive that tests the hull capacity of the boat at great depth as valves spring leaks, rivets threaten to pop, dials creep past maximum, and people sweat profusely.  This time it's made all the more difficult by the presence of a couple hundred civilians weighing the vessel down. 

For the most part though, THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA features lots of dialogue shot in extreme close-up, with the characters sometimes barely speaking above a whisper.  Fortunately, these actors can handle such intimacy with the camera.  RUN, LOLA, RUN fans will especially enjoy seeing lovely Franka Potente making the most of such a juicy role.  Another standout is Lindsay Duncan as oversexed British socialite Elisabeth Fullwood, who realizes only too late how much she loves her long-neglected daughter when she's unable to locate her after the ship's sinking. 

The 2-disc DVD (running time 171 minutes) from Acorn Media is in 16:9 widescreen with Dolby stereo sound and English subtitles.  Disc two's bonus feature is the half-hour documentary "The Sinking of the Laconia: Survivors' Stories." 

After being a ship-sinking disaster tale, a tense U-boat adventure, a political thriller, and an intimate human drama, THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA ultimately winds up as a survival tale as those remaining in the lifeboats make their way across hundreds of miles of empty ocean to the coast of Africa.  Mainly, though, it's a thoughtful and deeply contemplative look at how even the staunchest wartime adversaries can still interact as human beings under the right circumstances, even if some of them happen to be the misguided minions of the big "H."  Still not quite sure if I'm voting "yes" on sainthood for Captain Hartenstein, but he definitely rates a hearty thumbs-up.

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