In September, 1942, the RMS Laconia was sailing from Africa for home when the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat (U-156) under command of its decorated captain, Werner Hartenstein. Surveying the destruction he had created, Hartenstein was shocked to realize that the Laconia carried not only British civilians but also prisoners of war. Immediately, he ordered his crew to conduct a massive rescue effort, and, thus, THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA entered into maritime war history. In 2011, a miniseries exploring these events was nominated for a BAFTA Award for best drama serial, and the events as adapted by screenwriter Alan Bleasdale are as tense as one would expect from great drama.
Bleasdale populates his script with characters ripe for confrontation. Hartenstein (played by Ken Duken) walks a treacherous line between the demands of commanding his crew and the expectations of brutal government dictates. Hilda Smith (Franka Potente) is a German exile seeking refuge in England who finds herself caught between concealing her true identity from those who would turn her over to the authorities. Thomas Mortimer (Andrew Buchan), as the Laconia’s only surviving executive officer, manages the loss of his entire family (killed in a recent German bombing raid) alongside the challenges of keeping order amongst his fellow survivors, all the while keeping Hilda’s secret. Lindsay Duncan is a British aristocrat torn between maintaining the appearance of her own nobility while grieving with the loss of her only child. And, for the record, the drama doesn’t stop there, as the screenwriter deftly sprinkles his tale with terrific character moments.
The two-part story is also presented with great structure. Part One essentially deals with the Laconia’s destruction and Hartenstein’s rescue efforts; the audience is left with a visually striking cliffhanger of the two-hundred-plus survivors standing in wait on the exposed upper deck of the U-156. Then, Part Two dashes immediately into the political aftermath of Hartenstein’s plea to Allied Forces to assist in the rescue efforts, his superiors’ insistence that he regain his boat’s ability to defend itself, and some last desperate measures to salvage decorum in the face of attack. It’s a gripping account that does feel a bit uneven in its last hour or so, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a terrific account of a little known event from human history when adversaries worked together – however briefly – and everyone emerged heroic for their efforts.
Despite being produced for the small screen, LACONIA feels like an awfully big production. Much of the photography feels far more ‘feature production’ quality than it does traditional television work. Special effects are impressive – including the practical shots done in-camera – along with some wonderful set and location work. All of the principal players do great work; if anything, an argument could be made that there are too many secondary players to follow, but all are given respectable character ‘beats’ to follow from start-to-finish.
THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA was produced by Talkback Thames, Teamworx, and Two Oceans Production (TOP). Picture quality and sound quality are exceptional. Disc two boasts the only special features, a 30 minute documentary interviewing survivors of the original Laconia; while most of their stories are harrowing, it’s their colorful recollections of being kept in close quarters with German sailors I found most interesting. It’s definitely worth a view.
Acorn Media continues its string of high-quality, high-caliber releases with THE SINKING OF THE LACONIA. Sure, I’ll admit I had some initial difficulty getting past the fact that it was a Nazi portrayed here as personally trying to find recovery and not redemption for a heinous act of war, but I’m entirely convinced that that’s precisely what drew director Uwe Janson and writer Bleasdale to the project. Presenting cinema’s greatest villains engaged in a true act of compassion was a tremendous challenge. If nothing else, LACONIA should make you think about war and the consequences of it. It won’t erase the depth of atrocities that took place at the hands of the Germans for so long, but it may briefly give some perspective on a few individuals who acted in defiance of their nation when circumstances required it.
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