AUTHOR’S NOTE: ‘Six Minutes to Midnight’ stars Eddie Izzard, who self-identifies as “she/her.” However, the role she plays is a man, so, when referencing the character, I will use “he/him.”
Even 75 years later, Hollywood continues to find new World War II stories to tell. Filmmakers have to get more inventive and dig deeper, but they are still discovering little-known corners of the war to explore, some more interesting than others. Last year, writer/director Jessica Swale gave us Summerland, the story of a woman who cares for a child evacuee of London, and now, director Andy Goddard’s Six Minutes to Midnight explores yet another unexplored facet of the modern world’s defining conflict.
Co-written by Goddard, Celyn Jones and star Eddie Izzard, Six Minutes to Midnight is set in 1939 in a British boarding school for teenage daughters of the German high command. It’s an intriguing set-up, teenage Nazi girls embedded in England before the war even starts. Ostensibly there to learn about the English language and culture, as Germany and England are on the brink of war, their presence offers a valuable opportunity for both sides. For Germany, there may be a way for the girls to collect intelligence for the coming war, and, for England, these precious girls, daughters of top Nazi commanders, would make for prize bargaining chips in negotiations, or even prisoners, in the case of war.
Naturally, the school is a magnet for spies from both sides, each country trying to maximize the unique opportunity for leverage and information. After the movie opens with the school’s teacher mysteriously vanishing, a replacement is needed and Izzard’s character, Thomas Miller, is dispatched to take the position. We quickly learn that Miller is himself a British spy, tasked with the assignment of gaining intelligence on when and if Germany is planning on sneaking the girls out of England. When Miller is found out and targeted by a Nazi counterpart, the race is on to get the word to British intelligence before the Nazis can get to him.
While the boarding school at the center of the film, the Augusta Victoria College, is based on a real place which did exist in the 1930s, it’s unclear how much of the rest of the story is true, mainly because the script becomes more and more far-fetched as it goes along. While Goddard’s style is effective in creating a classic espionage atmosphere, the script isn’t able to capitalize on the potential, revealing some secrets too early and signaling others too obviously. What begins as a compelling look at a school straddling two sides of an emerging war devolves into a simple cat-and-mouse spy game, devoid of complexity and nuance. The motivations of the main villain are never clear, and the second half of the film is filled with scenes of Miller literally running away from those who are chasing him, adding an almost farcical element to a film that is trying very hard to be serious. By the time we get to the climax of the film, we’re not even sure who we are supposed to be rooting for—or against.
You would think that casting Judi Dench as the headmistress of the school would add some much-needed gravitas, but her character is not only superfluous, but oblivious to the impending doom of war, making her seem not only silly, but clueless. An attempt to inject a philosophical bent to the narrative, involving the morality of using the girls as a tool in a political game, goes nowhere, prompting one to wonder if Dench’s best moments might have been left on the cutting room floor. Also given a bit of short-shrift is Jim Broadbent, not much more than window-dressing in a movie that has no idea what to do with his character, a bus driver who happens to always be at the right place and the right time. Carla Juri and James D’Arcy do the best they can with their cartoonish villains, victims of a screenplay that suffers from over-simplicity of plot and over-complication of character.
Izzard is really the only thing holding Six Minutes to Midnight together, delivering a fully committed performance that is also restrained and textured. She’s been good in WWII movies before, there’s just something about Izzard that makes her perfectly suited for this era. She is believable as a spy and as a teacher, and pulls back just enough to make us question all of it.
But, sadly, everything else about this movie is a let-down, with giant plot holes and unexplained character motivations proving too much to overcome. Maybe there is a great story somewhere in the Nazi-girls-in-England bit of history, but Six Minutes to Midnight is not it.
IFC Films will release Six Minutes to Midnight in theaters and on demand March 26, 2021.
Photo Credit: IFC Films.