The 12th Man




Truth that is stranger than fiction in a work that fails to sustain a sense of veracity.

12th Man, The

Martin Kiefer and Jonathan Rhys Meyers


Films based on real events that occurred during the Second World War were all the rage in British cinema   during the 1950s but when such material emerges today it tends to feel like a fish out of water. However, those attracted to such works will find a good deal to relish in The 12th Man, especially in its first two thirds. Nevertheless, its release here may pass largely unnoticed because this is a Norwegian film and its chief drawing power is undoubtedly on home ground where the name of its hero, Jan Baalsrud, remains meaningful all these years later.


It was in 1943 that Baalsrud, then in Scotland, was sent out on a mission to Norway with eleven other saboteurs. The group were intercepted by the Germans on arrival and Baalsrud would be the only one to make his escape. He quickly had a fanatical SS Colonel in pursuit (a role played by our own Jonathan Rhys Meyers despite this being a subtitled foreign language film) but equally dangerous was the threat from nature. Being outdoors in a region north of the Arctic Circle, Baalsrud was subjected to conditions of such extreme cold that gangrene would set in as he attempted to reach Sweden, an endeavour that would take some two months.


There are two distinct aspects in play here. Initially we have a wartime thriller in which Baalsrud and the local people who help him are in danger from the Colonel and his men, but in time the film becomes a grim tale of survival which is why comparisons have been made with 2015's The Revenant. However, what is constant is the focus being on Baalsrud himself and, despite an able supporting cast (including Mads Sjøgård Pettersen and Marie Blokhus as the most prominent of those risking their lives to help him), it is Thomas Gullestad who carries the film with his deeply committed performance as Baalsrud.


Throughout The 12th Man the film gains from the fine colour photography of its striking landscapes and for much of the time the competent director Harald Zwart keeps the piece moving well. However, we have had at the outset an unusual written claim to the effect that the most incredible events depicted actually took place. That wording stops short of asserting that it is all true but we are being encouraged (if not exactly blackmailed) into accepting seeming improbabilities as authentic. Even so, that doesn't protect the film from charges that its last third often feels fake and overextended. Earlier the odd dream sequence has been weakened by its self-conscious mode of presentation and late on further dreams or memories that in effect provide a flashback hold up a film not helped by its indulgent length (133 minutes). But the worst of it is the film's climax that smacks of fictional contrivance by intercutting between the actual bid for the border with its own built-in moment of crisis and a supposedly simultaneous drama in which Baalsrud's key helpers are caught out and confronted by the Colonel. This sense of falsity is a shame when so much here is well done, but those who suspend disbelief more readily than I do may not share my view that the later scenes fail to maintain the film's earlier standard.




Cast: Thomas Gullestad, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Marie Blokhus, Mads Sjøgård Pettersen, Mathilde Sofie Henriksen, Martin Kiefer, Tiril Holthe Harnang, Aggie Peterson, Julia Bache-Wiig, Kim Jøran Olsen.


Dir Harald Zwart, Pro Aage Aaberge, Espen Horn, Harald Zwart and Veslemøy Ruud Zwart, Screenplay Petter Skavlan, Ph Geir Hartly Andreassen, Pro Des Mikael Varhelyi, Ed Jens Christian Fodstad, Music Christophe Beck, Costumes Karen Fabritius Gram.


Nordisk Film Production AS/Zwart Arbeid-Signature Entertainment.
136 mins. Norway. 2017. Rel: 4 January 2019. Cert. 15.