For fans of The Crown and World on Fire, here is a lavish 8-part miniseries from PBS Masterpiece Theater about the true-life friendship between Crown Princess Martha of Norway (Sofia Helin) and President Franklin Roosevelt (Kyle MacLachlan) during World War II.
The first episode plunges viewers into the world of the Norwegian royals, as Princess Martha and her husband, Prince Olav (Tobias Santelmann), visit the U.S. and become friends with the president and his wife, Eleanor (Harriet Sansom Harris), in 1939. This visit, like a surprising percentage of the series, really happened, with the royal couple taking a train tour to Midwest states heavily settled by Scandinavians. A year later, though, they must flee the Nazi invasion of their country. Viewers watch, wide-eyed, as the royals flee Nazi forces crashing into Norway—just in the nick of time. The suspense continues when Princess Martha escapes to neutral Sweden, where her uncle is king, only to find out her uncle is under pressure from the Nazis not to harbor her and her children. Apparently “neutrality” is a flimsy concept indeed if the Nazis decide otherwise.
It’s FDR to the rescue, as he invites Princess Martha and her children to come to America and ride out the war, or at least the present danger. They have no idea that their visit will extend five years. Prince Olav remains in Europe with his father, King Haakon VII (Søren Pilmark), as they attempt to rule a now-occupied Norway from England. Once again, things become tense as Princess Martha and her children make their Atlantic crossing, a passage fraught with danger as German submarines lurk nearby.
The series becomes increasingly fascinating as the relationship between Martha and Roosevelt unfolds. At first, Roosevelt seems to be a kindly friend to Martha and her children, including the heir to the throne, little Harald, the current king of Norway. The children call him “godfather” and the two families celebrate Christmas and other occasions together. Martha’s overwhelming emotions seem to be gratitude and relief, until she starts to pick up on Roosevelt’s growing crush on her.
She’s in love with and committed to her husband across the ocean and has no desire to break her marriage vows. Yet she is drawn to Roosevelt’s tenderness and companionship, and the two become dear friends. Things become more complicated when Olav and the Norwegian ambassador pressure her to exploit her friendship with this powerful man; they want her to exert her influence to get Roosevelt to enter America into the war.
Helin does a superb job of playing a woman riding a razor’s edge between sincere friendship and the knowledge that the infatuated Roosevelt would likely do almost anything to please her. How does she act with integrity in her marriage and as a de facto diplomat for the country she loves? MacLachlan also compels in his artful portrayal of a complicated man, lonely in his marriage and seeking solace in Martha, playing a dangerous game with the highest of stakes. Viewers will root for the brave Martha as she figures out if she can preserve her marriage and save her country at the same time.
Each week, the tone is set by the pining theme song, “When” by Norwegian singer-songwriter Susanne Sundfør. The haunting modern tune (a creative choice for a show set in the 1940s) echoes the yearning of Martha and Olav to be together again.
I was swept away by this series, and couldn’t wait to watch each Sunday night. It amazed and delighted me to read online about how much of the series was based on true events. Viewers should know that about half of the series is in Norwegian or Swedish with English subtitles. Other than a steamy scene between Martha and Olav at the very beginning of the series, the content is tame. For history buffs and royal watchers, Atlantic Crossing is a series to savor. (PBS Passport)