Director: Harald Zwart
Cast: Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys Meyers
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When is a WWII thriller not a WWII thriller? When it’s trying to be The Revenant. That’s the strange Venn diagram that The 12th Man tries to draw. The drama charts the aftermath of Operation Martin Red, an unsuccessful strike by a dozen Norwegian resistance fighters against their Nazi occupiers. When a German boat wipes out their ship, though, and 11 of them are arrested and killed, the sole survivor – Jan Baalsrud (Thomas Gullestad) – finds himself trying to flee to safety.
The result is an unexpected telling of real historical events, one that sits between The Great Escape and 127 Hours, The Pianist and All Is Lost. Because whenever Jan isn’t trying to evade capture by the German forces, he’s busy seeing off an equally harsh assault by mother nature, which throws everything at him, from snow and wind to frostbite. The fact that he starts out with a gruesome injury to his toes is only the beginning.
His cautious, painful edging towards the freedom of the border spanned two months, and you feel every day of them – not only because of the chapter headings counting down the calendar entries, but also because of the hefty 125-minute runtime. That’s both the movie’s strength and weakness, as it quietly, understatedly mounts an epic of personal resilience that stands as a national symbol, but also commits so wholeheartedly to the grim intensity of Jan’s journey that it occasionally becomes a bit of a slog.
Thomas Gullestad, also a TV presenter and musician, is fantastic as Baalsrud, undergoing the kind of physical transformation that won Leonardo DiCaprio an Oscar, but while shouldering the added burden of an entire country’s hope. Gullestad’s vulnerable, brave painful performing will have you wincing more than once, as he limps along through each new hardship, staring like a madman who barely knows what day it is. He’s positioned as the polar opposite of Kurt Stage (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), the Gestapo chief determinedly on his tail. Meyers, who learned German for the role, brings a suitably simmering rage to the part of the vaguely impotent officer; he only briefly lets his anger bubble to the surface when it could have been boiling over into melodrama for two hours (it’s testament to Meyers’ performance that Kurt’s villainous facial scar feels unnecessary).
But there’s no guarantee that Norway’s wintry landscape won’t finish Jan off before Kurt can get his hands on him, and director Harald Zwart (who also helmed the remake of The Karate Kid) does a cracking job of capturing the beauty of this chilling countryside crucible. The intentionally laborious pacing, though, leaves the middle act of the film sagging slightly, despite an impressively vivid flourish of a gangrene-tinged nightmare. It’s telling, perhaps, that the second half of the film introduces flashbacks to the opening mission-gone-awry, which bring a welcome extra dose of action to the screen.
There’s a stirring undercurrent of pride and solidarity, though, that crescendoes throughout, as screenwriter Petter Skavlan, who previously penned the fantastic Kon-Tiki, finds heroism not only in one man’s fight for survival, but also in the way that the locals around him pluck up the courage to help – in one nicely observed touch, a cake on Norwegian Constitution Day (17th May) has every ingredient sourced from a different neighbour, each one an act of tiny defiance. It’s through their collaboration that Jan become “Den 12. Mann”, a legend of morale and courage. The myth wraps up suddenly with a rushed burst of reindeer-related spectacle, but that only highlights the unusual nature of this true story, one that leaves The 12th Man in a limbo that defies easy categorisation. Leave those expectations at the door, though, and there are rousing depths beneath this long ordeal; it’s strange territory to explore, but no less compelling.