In the icy waters north of Norway during World War II, a motley crew of sailors aboard an aging freight ship confront bone-chilling temperatures, lurking U-boats, and clashes of leadership in their mission to deliver desperately needed supplies to Russia’s eastern front. This is the harrowing true story brought to life in Henrik M. Dahlsbakken’s nautical drama The Arctic Convoy.
We’re introduced to Captain Martin Skar, a weathered but steadfast career seaman determined to shepherd his vessel safely through treacherous passage. Butt heads he does with First Mate Oliver Mork, whose recent trauma has shaken his confidence. Communicates officer Ragnhild serves as Skar’s trusted second-in-command, exhibiting grit uncommon for women of the era. Beyond the senior ranks, the crew comprises an assembly of trembling youths facing their trial by fire.
When the transport fleet loses its military escort mid-voyage, the Captain is forced to make an agonizing call: press forward solo into the jaws of the enemy, or turn back? As U-boats and warplanes unleash hell, Skar wrestles not only the Germans but also self-doubt, clashing with Mork’s proposed evasive maneuvers. Will the men set aside their quarrel to rally together? Or will the Arctic claim more lives before the convoy reaches its destination?
Braving the Frigid Waters of Convoy PQ 17
The Arctic Convoy brings to screen a little-known chapter from World War II’s naval front. As Hitler’s forces occupy Norway in 1942, a ragtag fleet of Allied merchant ships takes on the treacherous passage to Russia’s Arctic ports. Their cargo? Desperately needed munitions and materiel for Soviet troops battling Nazis on the Eastern Front.
This real-life mission, dubbed Convoy PQ 17, saw over 30 vessels transport some $700 million worth of tanks, planes, trucks and fuel into unforgiving polar territory. Battling mountainous waves, ice drifts, and viz-obliterating storms, the fleet sailed through waters prowled by German U-boats and warplanes. Despite the risk, PQ 17 pressed north as the Soviets’ lifeline, the Allies vowing to aid Russia at all cost.
In The Arctic Convoy, we join the crew of a Norwegian freight ship four days into their white-knuckle two-week journey. These ill-prepared merchant mariners, mostly teenagers, are as green as the sea is gray. When they lose their naval escort, panic washes over the deck. The Captain issues the chilling order to “scatter”—leave the convoy’s relative safety and sail alone.
As the fleet disperses, our ragtag band steels itself for attack. The ship’s tense chain-of-command frays when the doubting First Mate challenges the Captain’s choices. Below deck, the youthful ranks descend into dread. Will their nerve hold? We soon find out as this forgotten band of brothers faces its trial by ice.
Navigating Rough Seas Behind the Camera
In steering The Arctic Convoy, director Henrik M. Dahlsbakken had solid credentials at the helm. Known for recent Norwegian hits like the biopic Munch, Dahlsbakken tackled the tale of Convoy PQ 17 with an adept hand. Yet while competent, his direction lacks a bold, distinctive vision that could have elevated this saga beyond steady competence.
Dahlsbakken opts for workmanlike technique over flare, competently stitching together the action without showstopping sequences. We get one major battle scene that delivers crackling firefights, tracking chaotic choreographies between deck and bridge. But elsewhere, engagements fizzle out quickly, failing to maximize their narrative juice. Dahlsbakken seems more at ease during character moments, patiently observing the crew’s swelling panic and fraying bonds.
On the visual front, handsome Naval cinematography captures the ship’s complete sensorial reality—groaning steel, salty spray, swirling Arctic mists. We ride along bow-on through churning swells, gaining visceral understanding of the extreme conditions. Impressive sets like the ship’s filthy boiler room double as supporting characters. If only Dahlsbakken injected more dynamism into these well-captured elements.
While functional enough to maintain interest, Dahlsbakken’s cookie-cutter direction lacks the bravura one expects from a survive-against-the-odds war saga. The Arctic Convoy had raw ingredients for an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, if only its captain had been more daring at the helm.
An Anchor-Tested Cast Treads Water
The success of any waterborne epic relies as much on its acting as its spectacle. Luckily, The Arctic Convoy boasts a roster of Norway’s finest thespians, led by seasoned captains Anders Baasmo as Martin Skar and Tobias Santelmann as conflicted first mate Oliver Mork. These two mariners anchor the drama, grappling for control of the ship—and the narrative—once they lose escorts.
As Captain Skar, Baasmo exudes gravitas and grit, steeling his jaw against icy gales. We believe he’d sooner go down with the ship than tarnish his decorated career. Opposing him is Mork, played with convincing anguish by Santelmann as officer haunted by past trauma. In questioning each command, Mork inserts organic friction that pays off once stakes heighten.
Yet most remaining crew fade into the frozen mists, failing to get the screen time needed to make us deeply invested in their fates. While female communications officer Ragnhild has potential to captivate as Skar’s oasis of level-headedness, the script funnels her into a stock supporting role. And few of the many baby-faced cadets demonstrate enough personality before falling casualty to the deep.
With sturdy cornerstones in the dueling captains portrayals, one wishes the film had better developed other crew as complex characters. As is, we feel distanced from the bulk of these sailors, muting the impact when sea claims some of their own. Still, Santelmann and Baasmo deliver solid lead performance to keep this vessel afloat.
Navigating Murky Waters of History and Meaning
Beyond sheer spectacle, The Arctic Convoy strives to impart wider lessons on war’s sacrifice and man’s capacity for unity. Steeped in little-known history, the film sheds light on oft-forgotten men who braved lethal odds to aid the Allied fight. Beyond bronzing the monument to their valor, The Arctic Convoy also explores timeless personal themes of duty, trauma, and the struggle to trust in crisis.
Striving for historical fidelity, the film gets high marks for production design accuracy—the creaking ship resurrected as a floating time capsule to 1942 naval life. Small details like fading paint, analog interfaces, even the cook’s gruel transport us back through the mists. Moreover, the film sticks to the deadly odds facing PQ 17 ships once cut loose to fend for themselves. This mission saw nearly two-thirds of convoy ships destroyed, along with 210 planes and 430 tanks, a devastating loss for Russian forces.
Where the film takes artistic license is in manufacturing an internal clash absent from the real-life record. While friction between ranks surely occurred, the script fabricates heated conflict between Captain and First Mate to juice up drama. Does this gambit pay off narratively without disrespecting the unfathomable challenges faced by the real crew? That judgement lies in the eye of the beholder.
Smooth Sailing Gives Way to Stormy Seas
In navigating the voyage of PQ 17 to screen, The Arctic Convoy benefits from patient, measured pacing in its first act. As the crew departs icy port, Dahlsbakken lingers on somber goodbyes and the anticipation churning beneath even keel. Once at sea, the director similarly lets sequences breathe, capturing repetitive shipboard routines and false-alarm threats. This slow burn approach pulls us into the trip’s hypnotic tedium.
When attack finally erupts mid-film, the thrill is amplified by the preceding calm. Guns blaze and hulls breach in gripping battle choreography. Yet oddly, Dahlsbakken fails to translate the sequence’s visceral intensity into lasting narrative momentum. Instead of using this tipping point to push through the third act under full steam, the subsequent action feels strangely anti-climactic.
Indeed, rather than embrace the survivor thriller The Arctic Convoy seems destined to become, the last leg downshifts to uneasy stillness. Confrontation between ranking officers dominates over external threats, ratcheting tension through simmering standoffs rather than hair-raising encounters. For those craving militaristic excitement, this muted finale frustrates. But viewed as slow-cresting psychological drama, the film stays true to its established tone.
In the end, The Arctic Convoy may not satisfy those seeking high-octane heroics. But its understated escalation of dread effectively captures the slow-motion nightmare that was Convoy PQ 17’s fatal climax.
All Hands on Deck for This Worthy Voyage
Like the weathered vessels that bore its drama, The Arctic Convoy perhaps shows its age through occasional uneven pacing and plot holes. Yet its flaws fade against well-rendered characters, visual authenticity, and the shining light it casts on a neglected WWII saga. While no masterpiece, it merits a stream for history buffs or fans of seafaring quests.
I’d steer casual viewers to temper expectations around blockbuster set pieces, since action generally simmers more than it boils. But the film rewards patience with an accumulating sense of dread, punctuated by squalls of mental thriller tension between leads. If only the script carved out more distinct identities within its sea of indistinguishable cadets.
In the end, I applaud Norway’s naval-gazing attempt to immortalize its merchant mariners’ essential role supplying Russia’s lifeline. The Arctic Convoy recovers a heroic story deserving of global attention. Despite its flaws, I happily salute this film for expanding our knowledge of the unsung sailors who braved frigid hell and worse to change the tide of war. It’s a chapter begging for big-budget Hollywood treatment, but until then, Dahlsbakken’s tribute more than floats.
The Arctic Convoy
At the end stormy passage, The Arctic Convoy reaches safe harbor as a respectable, seaworthy drama that subtly thrills more than it overtly excites. Bolstered by strong lead performances and visual authenticity, the film pays fitting tribute to Norway’s forgotten merchant mariners of WWII. If only the story sustained action as keenly as it sustains interest.
- Strong lead performances from veteran actors
- Immersive period-accurate visuals and production design
- Sheds light on a lesser-known WWII naval campaign
- Patient buildup of dread and tension
- Uneven pacing and plot holes
- Lackluster action scenes after the midpoint
- Most of the crew lack dimensionality