Roush Review: A Princess in the White House in Masterpiece’s ‘Atlantic Crossing’

Atlantic Crossing PBS
Review
PBS/MASTERPIECE

Over the decades, PBS’s Masterpiece has covered World War II from just about every angle over the years — except, maybe, the Norwegian.

In the opening chapters of Atlantic Crossing, an affecting and sentimental eight-part import from Norway (with appropriate subtitles), the winds of war sweep Europe, forcing Norway’s Crown Princess Martha (the elegant Sofia Helin) to make her way across the Atlantic with her three children after a harrowing escape from the Nazi invasion of 1940. A year earlier, she and her stoic husband, Crown Prince Olav (Tobias Santelmann), had made a favorable impression on President Franklin Roosevelt (a charming Kyle MacLachlan) and First Lady Eleanor (Harriet Samson Harris) during a U.S. tour.

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Diplomatic friendship is one thing, but after the refugee family takes temporary shelter in the White House, eyebrows are raised when the bewildered and overwhelmed Martha becomes an instant favorite of a smitten FDR, who demands being seen as “godfather” to her children as he takes the Princess for private joyrides.

For the Norwegian leaders back in war-torn Europe, who’ve set up a government in exile in London, this is an opportunity to use her influence to budge the president from the politically prudent stance of neutrality. (Prince Olav is the exception, viewing this relationship from afar with suspicion.) For Martha, who resists being embroiled in geopolitics and dreads the public spotlight, the emotional entanglement adds an awkward layer to her mission to represent and defend her occupied country.

atlantic crossing pbs masterpiece

(Credit: Julie Vrabelova/Masterpiece)

It’s all a bit gauzy, playing at times like a vintage melodrama shown in the wee hours on Turner Classic Movies. “If Hitler wins the war, you’ll be queen of nothing,” snarls Missy LeHand (an unconvincing Lucy Russell), the president’s very personal assistant, who sees the princess as her competition for his affections. (Where’s Bette Davis when you need her for a good comeback?)

Caught in an emotional bind between Prince Olav’s wounded male pride and FDR’s delusional ardor, the shy Martha eventually learns to stand up for herself. In one of the best scenes, Eleanor coaches her supposed rival on how to loosen up before a big speech, and Harris goes to town comically, showing the revered First Lady in a spontaneous new light. Score one for the spouses.

Atlantic Crossing, Limited Series Premiere, Sunday, April 4, 9/8c, PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)