SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Andy Goddard

Stars: Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, Carla Juri, Jim Broadbent, James D’Arcy, Celyn Jones, Tijan Marei, Maria Dragus, David Schofield.

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Set on the eve of WWII, this moderately engaging spy thriller is set mainly in the prestigious Augusta-Victoria College, situated in a sprawling old mansion located in the seaside town of Bexhill On Sea, near Brighton. This is an upmarket British finishing school for the daughters and god daughters of high-ranking Nazis. The girls are learning to be ambassadors and future leaders for the future National Socialist government. The school promotes British-German relations, but tensions between the two countries are running high and as such it has been under surveillance by the British authorities.

Following the murder of a British spy working undercover at the school, English teacher Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard) arrives to take up a temporary teaching position. He works for British intelligence and he is tasked with what is going on in the school. The school is run by the imperious and judgemental headmistress Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), who is seemingly reluctant to bring in a newcomer under the circumstances, and Miller is uncertain if she is a Nazi sympathiser as well. But because he is half-German he is hired on a temporary trial basis. The other main teacher is the secretive Ilse Keller (Carla Juri, from Blade Runner 2049, etc), herself a former student of the school, who teaches PE and German. Miller is sympathetic towards Gretel (Tijan Marei), a rather introverted and socially awkward student who feels bullied and alienated.

Miller learns of a plan to evacuate the girls and repatriate them back to Germany in the next few days. The German government fears that the girls themselves may be corrupted by learning British values or may be used as bargaining chips in the upcoming conflict between the two countries. But before he can pass on this information there is another murder and Miller finds himself suspected of the crime, as well as accused of being a traitor. He is pursued by Captain Drey (James D’Arcy) and Corporal Willis (Celyn Jones) and goes on the run across windswept fields and dusty roads. This race against time to prove his innocence recalls the classic spy thriller The 39 Steps. However, this film lacks that same level of suspense that Hitchcock established.

The Augusta-Victoria College was a real school that operated from 1932-39, and this film grew out of Izzard’s fascination with it and its purpose. Izzard has co-written the script with Jones and director Andy Goddard, and, while the film is based on a true story, they have taken liberties with the basic facts for dramatic purposes. The film’s plot basically rewarms many of the tropes of the espionage genre. There is also a nice McGuffin with a list of collaborators that Miller finds hidden in a desk drawer, but it leads nowhere in particular. With the main setting being a boarding school for girls, the film also recalls in part Peter Weir’s atmospheric Australian classic Picnic At Hanging Rock.

However, there are a few problems with the creation and depiction  of the school here – it is a boarding school, but we never get to see the kitchens or dining room; there doesn’t seem to be any laundry facilities, cleaning staff or garden staff, and no supervision over the girls’ dormitory, and we basically only get to see two teachers and the headmistress. This may be the result of limited budget and resources, but it did grate a little.

Six Minutes To Midnight has been efficiently directed by Goddard, who is best known for his work on the television series Downton Abbey, and he tries to milk the material for maximum suspense. This is certainly a handsomely mounted production and there is some great production design from Candida Otton, which creates the limited interiors of the school, giving it an old-fashioned opulence. The period details reeks of authenticity. The film is set on the British coastline and there is some superb cinematography from Chris Seager (the tv mini-series The Alienist, etc). But many of the characters are underwritten and leave little impact on the material.

Izzard does well as the stiff lipped British agent in peril but she (Izzard identifies as transgender and prefers to use feminine pronouns) is certainly not your typical-looking action hero. This was probably something of a vanity project for Izzard. Dench brings her usual sense of gravitas and dignity and no-nonsense demeanour to her role as the headmistress whose attitude towards fascism and the German anti-Jewish sentiments are for the most part ambivalent. In a small supporting role Jim Broadbent brings a jovial avuncular quality to his role as Charlie, the local bus driver.

The rather obscure sounding title comes from the special telephone number for the war office in London – 1154 – and the code word needed for verification.

★★☆

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