A curious footnote in pre-World War II British history fails to provide adequate fuel for a gripping espionage thriller in Six Minutes to Midnight, a disappointingly conventional passion project for genderfluid comic Eddie Izzard, inspired by childhood visits to the local museum at Bexhill-on-Sea. The film takes its cue from the Augusta-Victoria College for Girls, where the teenage daughters of high-ranking German officials were sent to study in the 1930s, their uniforms sporting an insignia emblazoned with a Swastika right alongside the Union Jack. But all the breathless sturm und drang is undone by the fictionalized script’s clunky spycraft and clichéd plotting.
After Lionsgate U.K.’s 2020 release plans were scuttled by lockdown, the film will go out there directly on cable and streaming services March 26, the same date IFC Films has scheduled a U.S. release. Admirers of old-fashioned British war drama should find this passably entertaining, and the dazzling green Welsh countryside and seafront locations that stand in for England’s Southeast coast are certainly pleasing to the eye. But handsome production values can’t disguise shaky storytelling that relies almost entirely on composer Marc Streitenfeld’s agitated orchestral score to stoke suspense.
Works overtime for scant reward.
Directed with more efficiency than urgency by Andy Goddard (the Dylan Thomas bio-drama Set Fire to the Stars), who wrote the screenplay with Izzard and co-star Celyn Jones, the film opens in high-drama mode in late summer 1939, as Britain braces for war with Germany. Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay), the Augusta-Victoria’s English teacher, panics when it appears that his British intelligence identity has been exposed. He cycles to the seaside pier but mysteriously disappears before he can call for help.
Meanwhile, on the beach, German physical education teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri) puts the girls through their calisthenics drills like a scene out of Leni Riefenstahl. Soon after, Fraulein Keller welcomes Thomas Miller (Izzard) to the school where he is interviewed by devoted British governess Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench) for the abruptly vacated teaching position. “Faith and perseverance” is the school motto, she informs him, stressing the importance of readying the girls for an upcoming Anglo-German Fellowship presentation.
A cloud is cast over the school when mousy outsider Gretel (Tijan Marei) finds Wheatley’s body washed up on the shore during the girls’ morning swim. It quickly becomes obvious that Miller, too, is working undercover for the Brits when he sneaks into a music hall to report the development to his contact, Colonel Smith (David Schofield). The latter’s response, “Every game of chess needs its pawns,” is one of many lines that teeter on the brink of arch espionage parody.
Not doing much to hide his consternation, Miller observes the girls gathered around the radio to hear a Nazi propaganda address, with Miss Rocholl joining in on their “Sieg Heil!” victory salute. She claims to be merely encouraging their sense of national pride, making it ambiguous whether she’s shady or naïve.
During the Fellowship evening, Ilse pins a swastika to Thomas’ lapel, which won’t look good in photographs released later. He snoops around and finds a list of names that appear to be German spies working undercover in Britain. Then in another stroke of remarkably convenient espionage luck, he overhears a plot to fly the entire student body out before war is declared, in addition to reporting the names of Brits working behind enemy lines in Germany.
Miller alerts Colonel Smith, just in time for the latter to be shot by an assassin whose identity anyone paying attention will have guessed. But Miller is framed for the murder, resulting in a manhunt that means he has to evade pursuit by both British authorities and German spies, while attempting to raise the alarm with intelligence HQ in London.
There’s a chilling moment or two in which the eyes of the Augusta-Victoria girls appear to be opened to the stark reality of the political world for which they are being groomed. But even with the high stakes of war, subterfuge and innocence lost, this is a fairly torpid account that never gathers much steam.
The actors generally are fine within the constraints of stock characters, including Jim Broadbent as the cheery village bus driver, who plays a strategic role in Thomas’ flight; James D’Arcy as a sinister legal authority; and co-writer Jones as his Corporal sidekick.
However, much of the dramatic weight hinges on Juri’s Fraulein Keller, who makes a pallid impression. Of the girls, only Marei’s keenly observant Gretel and Maria Dragus’ alpha mean girl Astrid have any kind of character definition. Following the recent unwatchable Blithe Spirit remake, this marks another film in which even Dench’s formidable charms can’t provide much spark. When a character coldly says of her students, “They were never your girls,” it’s just one more predictably melodramatic moment in a film littered with them.
Goddard’s direction lumbers through the protracted climactic stretch, diluting the impact of a supposedly tense scene on the beach and some nighttime aerial activity that unfolds in a hurried blur. And the wrap-up is pure corn, glossing over any possibly conflicted feelings in the girls — spoiler — by having them sing a rousing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” It sure is.
Following Simon Stone’s more satisfying The Dig, with Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes, this is the second Brit historical drama in as many months to close with Neville Chamberlain’s solemn radio address to the nation confirming that the country is at war. This stodgy entry is watchable enough though unlikely to stir much feeling.
Production companies: Mad as Birds, Motion Picture Capital, Ella Communications, Lionsgate U.K., Film Cymru Wales, West Madison Entertainment
Distribution: IFC Films
Cast: Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, Carla Juri, James D’Arcy, Celyn Jones, Jim Broadbent, David Schofield, Maria Dragus, Tijan Marei, Franziska Brandmeier, Luisa-Céline Gaffron, Bianca Nawrath, Daria Wolf, Nigel Lindsay, Kevin Eldon
Director: Andy Goddard
Screenwriters: Celyn Jones, Eddie Izzard, Andy Goddard; story by Izzard, Jones
Producers: Andy Evans, Sean Marley, Ade Shannon, Laure Vaysse, Sarah Townsend
Executive producers: Eddie Izzard, Celyn Jones, Trevor Beattie, Helen Lee-Kim, Deepak Nayar, Adam Partridge, Pauline Burt, Christina Papagjika, Matthew Salloway, Zygi Kamasa, Emma Berkofsky, Richard Patten, Andrew Mackie
Director of photography: Chris Seager
Production designer: Candida Otton
Costume designer: Lucinda Wright
Music: Marc Streitenfeld
Editor: Mike Jones, John Gilbert
Casting: Colin Jones
Rated PG-13, 99 minutes