SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT offers a fascinating premise based on real events made a little less so by the suspenseless screenplay by director Andy Goddard, Eddie Izzard, who stars, and Celyn Jones. The film takes place at the Augusta-Victoria College, Bexhill-on-Sea, a finishing school, set on the south coast of England on the cusp of World War II.
This particular college in the summer of 1939 is home to the daughters and god-daughters of the Nazi elite. Sent there to learn English and how to be ambassadors for National Socialist, these young women flourish under the attention of headmistress Miss Rocholl (Dame Judi Dench) and her assistant Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), who is also the German tutor.
Following the untimely disappearance of the English teacher, Miss Rocholl hires Thomas Miller (Izzard) to take his place. But as the possibility of war becomes ever more real, plans are made unbeknownst to Miss Rocholl to evacuate the girls --- a move that the British government is keen to stop.
Bexhill-on-Sea is Izzard’s hometown and when visiting the Bexhill Museum, she was shown the school badge, which piqued her interest in the story of this college and the girls. This is an episode in British history about which very little is known, but it does make for an intriguing plot.
Unfortunately, the script doesn’t quite capture what must have been a very exciting incident in Brexhill-on-Sea leading up to World War II. The fact that these German girls were living in the English countryside in plain sight while Hitler was planning to invade England is remarkable, but it’s never really fully translated through this telling.
The most tantalizing scenes are either underdeveloped or cut short. One particularly spine-tingling sequence has Miller rifling through Ilse’s desk in search of information, when she and a German guest enter the room. What should have been a nail-biting interlude turns ho-hum as it is edited into the next scene.
This happens repeatedly throughout SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, though there are a few twists which maintain some of the suspense. Izzard does a fair job as Miler, though another choice to portray the English educator may have improved the outcome. Dench is her usual brilliant self, but this screenplay does limit her contribution.
Perhaps the most interesting character is Captain Drey played by James D’Arcy. He’s truly emblematic of what one would expect of a British inspector at the time. Jim Broadbent has a small, but pivotal role --- and it’s always wonderful to see him in anything.
SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT isn’t the best British WWII spy film --- not by a longshot. But it’s not the worst either. A script with a great deal more tension and character development may have helped.
Opinion: Wait for VOD
Based on a true story, SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT is the brainchild of Eddie Izzard, British actress and stand-up comedian. At the age of four Izzard realized she was transgender --- now calling herself gender fluid depending on whether she is in “girl mode” or “boy mode”. Typically, Izzard has taken on male movie and TV roles.
The setting is 1939 just months before the Nazi invasion of Poland which led England to declare war on Germany. In SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, Izzard portrays Thomas Miller, a schoolteacher who becomes wary of Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), mentor to a group of German teenaged girls at the Augusta- Victoria College which was in Izzard’s hometown of Bexhill-on-Sea. All the girls are related to wealthy high-ranking Nazis.
As a co-writer of the screenplay, Izzard was swept up with the idea of telling this story of a teacher turned spy for the British government. When he espied a museum piece of the school’s badge, Izzard was convinced this story had to be made into a feature film.
The badge is seen briefly in the movie, depicting a Union Jack on one side and a Nazi swastika on the other. At one point, Ilse is standing at a blackboard and begins to impart to her class the difference between Jews and gentiles when she is interrupted by the school’s headmistress, Miss Rocholl (Dame Judi Dench). This is all meant to build up the suspense in SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, billed as a thriller but missing the mark by a considerable margin.
Miller is ostensibly framed for murder and spends a good deal of the film fleeing British police, and later running from Captain Drey (James D’Arcy) who believes he is guilty of the crime. What is clear in this script is the viewer is perplexed as to who can be trusted. That’s a good asset for a political thriller but it’s not orchestrated very well here.
The other curiosity was the fact that Izzard’s character does a whole lot of running and I’m wondering where he gets the stamina, or perhaps the shots were done in shorter frames. It turns out that Izzard is a long-distance runner who once ran 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa for charity --- the number of days Nelson Mandela spent in prison.
Meanwhile, director Andy Goddard made it a priority of casting what he calls the best group of young actresses to play the schoolgirls. Unfortunately, the characterizations of these key six young women are wholly superficial --- we hardly get to know them other than one is a bully, and another is ostracized by the group. The filmmakers employ at least one cheap trick and Miller’s multiple escapes from authorities often defy credibility.
Rounding out the cast is Jim Broadbent as Charlie, a bus driver who gets himself in the middle of this affair. Both Broadbent and Dench are so underutilized in SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT that it’s a travesty given their considerable backgrounds in film and theatre.
The best part of this film is the music. German composer Marc Streitenfeld’s score would ordinarily be a welcome adjunct to the script but here it just seems out of place. Oh, and for the record, the title of this film is a kind of archaic code for British intelligence.
Opinion: Don’t Bother!