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The Sinking of The Laconia - First episode reviewed

The Sinking of the Laconia

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 3.5 out of 5

BBC’S war-time drama The Sinking of the Laconia is notable for two reasons: shedding light on a remarkable but little known chapter in World War Two history and marking the return of writer Alan Bleasdale to the small screen.

It actually works best in the former’s case, when the historical events are allowed to take full precedence. For in dramatic terms, Bleasdale’s screenplay sometimes struggles to overcome the memory of James Cameron’s Titanic (which also set melodrama against historical context), or the writer’s own formidable reputation as the scribe of The Boys From The Blackstuff.

For those that didn’t know, the RMS Laconia was a former Cunard liner that was press-ganged into war service. In 1942, it was transporting civilians, British soldiers, Italian POWs and their Polish prison guards from Egypt to Britain when a German U-Boat torpedoed it.

As ‘luck’ would have it, the ship’s 200 survivors [from 2,000 in total] were rescued by the U-boat commander [Werner Hartenstein] who had ordered the firing of the torpedoes, after he realised his error and that many of the survivors were women and children.

Even more remarkably, Hartenstein even sent out a radio plea in English asking for help… putting his own career and the lives of his crew at risk.

Part one of this two-parter got to the point at which the English message had been sent out, setting up tonight [Friday, January 7]‘s finale in suitably engrossing fashion.

And yet as impressive and admirable as this story is, Bleasdale’s screenplay didn’t always do it justice.

Some of the plotting and characterisation were stereotyped, especially with regard to many of the Laconia’s passengers. Lindsay Duncan’s toff, for instance, seemed like a caricature of many ‘posh’ women of the day and didn’t help the drama get away from unwanted and unnecessary comparisons with Titanic.

Her screen-time, meanwhile, came at the expense of potentially more interesting characters, with Brian Cox’s Captain Sharp curiously reduced to a small – but significant – number of scenes.

The same criticism could be applied to the Italian POWs and their Polish captors – shown only fleetingly, yet (in the Italians case) one of the biggest casualties of the sinking. Perhaps a little more time with one or two of them, and less time with Franka Potente’s German passenger would have created a greater sense of loss.

That said, Bleasdale still offered enough to keep us gripped, not least in his depiction of life aboard the German U-Boat, where Ken Duken’s Hartenstein shone.

Duken’s depiction of the German commander was, by turns, committed and honourable, providing proof that there were good Germans trapped by the circumstance of war.

Aided by some thoughtful moments in Bleasdale’s script, Duken enabled Hartenstine to become a truly enigmatic presence – a war-man with a formidable reputation for sinking ships, yet one who was prepared to put his reputation and career on the line to do the right thing.

I must confess to ignorance at this point of what fate befell him – so I shall be tuning in tonight with added interest.

Strong, too, was Andrew Buchan’s portrayal of Mortimer, the Laconia’s honourable Third Officer, who discovered only moments before the torpedo hit that he had lost his own wife and children back home to German bombers. His was a role of dignity tempered by the pain of loss and it should be fascinating to see how his role is developed.

In directing terms, too, The Sinking of The Laconia kept us gripped, while lacking the big screen bravado of Cameron’s epic. The sinking scenes, though, were as frought with confusion, fear and moments of bravery and selfishness as you might expect, creating a palpable sense of what it might have been like to be there. It was, for the most part, impressively mounted by Uwe Janson.

All in all, then, a fine first chapter that sets up the possibility of plenty more still to come.

Read our review of the final episode

The concluding part of The Sinking of The Laconia is on BBC2 on Friday, January 7, 2011, at 9pm.