Six Minutes to Midnight (2020)
Britain 1939. Hitler’s grip is tightening. No-one can be trusted.
It’s August 1939, and the shadow of war is reaching across Europe as Hitler moves his troops into Poland. In the seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea, a small boarding school housing a selection of girls from high-ranking Nazi party families is operating under the eye of Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench). The Alexandra-Victoria School for Girls becomes a fertile ground for spies from each side as they use the place to gather intelligence for the war effort. After a teacher who was operating for British Intelligence winds up missing, Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard) takes up a position as an English teacher in the school with his main objective being to find a list of English Nazi sympathizers and to also secure the establishment for the British by ensuring the girls are kept in England when hostilities between the two nations break out.
Miller is half German, which gives him an advantage at the school and places him in relatively good stead with the headmistress, Miss Rocholl, who has tried to create a haven for German girls in England primarily because of her own experiences as an outsider in the country. Post-WWI tensions between England and Germany were never fully resolved after so many were killed and grievously wounded in the War to End All Wars. Rocholl has passively adapted to the rhetoric of the Nazi Party, although the rising extremity of Hitler has her somewhat unsettled. Primarily, she sees herself as a caretaker for the girls who are at risk from anti-German sentiment.
Under her tutelage was the student now turned teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), who has been radicalized by the Nazi party and is now acting as a spy. With the tensions between the two countries at boiling point, Miller and Keller face off against each other with both believing they are acting in some manner in the best interests of the girls, and naturally, their countries.
Six Minutes to Midnight had the opportunity to be a small but tight espionage thriller but sadly squanders the potential by veering into cliché and having almost zero dramatic tension. Eddie Izzard, who penned the screenplay with Celyn Jones (who plays a small but crucial part in the film), makes the mistake of substituting vague and never completely realized ideas about nationalism and the effect propaganda has on the emerging mind for a well-constructed spy narrative. The mix of ideas is clumsy, but the execution on screen makes for a muddied and dull experience.
Mostly what doesn’t work in the film is that despite the fact that Miller is working on a tight deadline to get information to British Intelligence, the film dithers with a series of long foot chase sequences and near somnambulistic editing. The audience is told time is of the essence, yet we never feel a propulsive push to up the ante.
Izzard is a capable actor and one not unfamiliar with the war/spy genre. Izzard’s turn in the comedic (yet significantly more effective) film All the Queen’s Men (2001) proves her ability to find a core emotional kernel that is almost completely lacking in her performance here. Mostly Izzard just looks on with consternation and concern at the activities in the school, which doesn’t lead to a particularly believable character study. The film attempts to give depth to Miller by having him bond with bullied student Gretel (Tijan Marei), who is a keen observer of the other girls, but instead of creating space for either character to shine, it seems more like a set up for Gretel’s role later in the film.
The great Judi Dench, Skyfall (2012), does predictably good work as Miss Rocholl, and her arc is arguably the most interesting thing about the film. Carla Juri, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), does pull off convicted and conflicted well enough, but for such a pivotal role, she is underwritten. If the film was more convinced about what it was trying to achieve, characters would be clearer and the action precise.
Director Andy Goddard, A Kind of Murder (2016), does make the best of the script he’s given. Along with cinematographer Chris Seager, Carnival Row (2019), Goddard creates something that is visually quite arresting. Early scenes with the girls engaging in athletics feel authentic to the Hitler Youth aesthetic. However, Goddard’s skill is undermined by poor pacing and the inability to convey tension. Again, this deficit mostly rests with the script rather than the execution, although there are moments when the audience will be begging for the film to kick into gear. Even the visually dramatic penultimate scene is hampered by the camera spending too much time lingering on details that the audience has already understood.
Perhaps, ultimately, Izzard wore too many hats in this production. Her credits as screenwriter, lead actor, and the film’s producer seem to have watered down her talents instead of bolstering them. What the viewer is left with is a sub-par piece of work that telegraphs where it goes wrong far too often.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney