‘Munich — The Edge of War’: Film Review

George MacKay and Jeremy Irons star in this Netflix historical drama about British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s desperate attempts to negotiate with Adolf Hitler to avoid war.

You can feel the internal struggle in the film adaptation of Robert Harris’ 2018 best-selling historical novel Munich, about British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempts to negotiate peace with Adolf Hitler prior to the German leader’s invasion of the Sudetenland.

On the one hand, Munich — The Edge of War is a straightforward historical drama that notably attempts to present a revisionist portrait of Chamberlain as desperately trying to prevent another calamitous world war rather than as a politically weak-willed appeaser. On the other hand, the story introduces fictional characters and elements that give it the air of a suspenser, exactly the sort for which Harris is so popular. The two elements don’t fully coalesce, resulting in a film that doesn’t quite know whether it wants to educate its audience or give it a thrill ride. It proves more interesting for the former elements than the latter, but it nonetheless delivers plenty of compelling moments along the way.

Munich — The Edge of War

The Bottom Line

Fascinating history, so-so thriller.

Release date: Friday, Jan. 21

Cast: George MacKay, Jeremey Irons, Jannis Niewohner, Robert Brathurst, Jessica Brown Findley, August Diehl, Sandra Huller, Alex Jennings, Ulrich Matthes, Liv Lisa Fries

Director: Christian Schwochow

Screenwriter: Ben Power

Rated PG-13,
2 hours 10 minutes

The story begins with a prologue set in 1932 at Oxford University, where we’re introduced to carefree best friends Hugh (George MacKay), the enthusiastically pro-Nazi German Paul (Jannis Niewohner) and Paul’s girlfriend Lena (Liv Lisa Fries).

Cut to six years later when Hitler’s plan to annex the Czech region has becoming glaringly apparent. Hugh is now a private secretary to Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) and involved in a troubled marriage to Pamela (Jessica Brown Findlay), while Paul is a diplomat who has become staunchly opposed to Hitler, whom he considers a power-hungry madman. Paul becomes involved in a secret plot to arrest the Fuhrer after becoming convinced that the German generals, who are opposed to going to war, will step in. He also receives a secret document from his lover (a sadly underused Sandra Huller) that outlines Hitler’s grandiose plans to conquer Europe.

Cue the familiar spy-thriller mechanics, with Paul enlisting Hugh in attempting to dissuade Chamberlain from allowing Hitler to follow through with his plans, even as he’s being surveilled by an increasingly suspicious old friend (August Diehl, who had his own trouble with the Nazis in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life) now serving as one of Hitler’s bodyguards.

Hitler plays a more prominent role in the cinematic proceedings than he did in the book, as Chamberlain tries to resolve the issue at the fateful meeting in Munich during which Chamberlain, joined by Mussolini and French Prime Minister Daladier, agreed to let him have his way. The sequence was shot at the actual building where the conference was held (now an arts university), providing vivid historical authenticity. Ulrich Matthes, who previously played Joseph Goebbels in 2004’s Downfall, here graduates to the role of der Fuhrer, delivering a riveting performance that conveys Hitler’s intensity without resorting to the histrionics of so many other cinematic portrayals.

Ben Power’s screenplay proves unfocused, spending too much time on the relatively uninteresting personal lives of the younger protagonists and not enough on the complex geopolitical machinations propelling the region to war. While some historians may quibble at the depiction of Chamberlain, there’s no doubt that he’s the film’s most intriguing character. Especially as superbly played by Irons, who invests his sympathetic portrayal with a world-weary dignity. Admitting the possible calamitous repercussions of his approach to dealing with Hitler, Chamberlain resignedly reminds his colleagues, “You’ve got to play the game with the hands you’re dealt.” The film’s strongest sequence stems not from the mortal danger Hugh and Paul place themselves in by attempting to bring the secret document outlining Hitler’s plans to Chamberlain, but rather the tense late-night meeting in which he brusquely rejects their concerns. And we all know how that turned out.

Full credits

Distributor: Netflix
Production companies: Turbine Studios, Netflix
Cast: George MacKay, Jeremey Irons, Jannis Niewohner, Robert Brathurst, Jessica Brown Findley, August Diehl, Sandra Huller, Alex Jennings, Ulrich Matthes, Liv Lisa Fries
Director: Christian Schwochow
Screenwriter: Ben Power
Producer: Andrew Eaton
Executive producers: Daniel Hetzer, Robert Harris
Director of photography: Frank Lamm
Editor: Jens Kluber
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Costume designer: Frauke Firl
Casting: Anja Dihrberg, Simone Periera Hind

Rated PG-13, 2 hours 10 minutes