Six Minutes to Midnight is quite a personal endeavor for Eddie Izzard: not only does she star in the film, but she also serves as executive producer and co-wrote the script, based on events that took place in her hometown of Bexhill-on-Sea during the 1930s. At that time, the Augusta Victoria School, an Anglo-German finishing school for the daughters of the Nazi high command, was situated in this sleepy seaside town; the girls were sent here to improve their English and their etiquette but also found time to sing Nazi songs and listen to Hitler’s propaganda broadcasts. The end goal was likely to use these girls to infiate British high society so they could use their influence to help keep Great Britain out of the impending war.
In Six Minutes to Midnight, Izzard plays a newly hired teacher at the school who uncovers a Nazi plot involving the girls and sets out to stop it. The concept is intriguing, mostly because it is a World War II story that we haven’t heard before; Izzard apparently spent years researching the school alongside the curator of the Bexhill Museum before writing the script. Yet despite this impressive undertaking, the end result is not much more than your standard spy thriller: solid, yet unremarkable.
Note: While Izzard uses she/her pronouns, the character she plays in Six Minutes to Midnight is referred to with he/him throughout the film, so those are what I will use when referring to the character.
Thomas Miller (Izzard) arrives at the Augusta Victoria School to replace the previous English teacher after his sudden departure, and while the headmistress, Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench) is unimpressed with the resume of this “journeyman teacher,” she is willing to give him a trial run—especially when she discovers he’s fluent in German, courtesy of his German father. The only other teacher at the school is Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), who leads the girls in calisthenics as well as passionate recitations of “Sieg Heil!” following the Führer’s radio broadcasts. England has not yet declared war on Germany, but one can practically see peacetime dwindling away like dust in an hourglass when these teenage girls raise their arms in proud Nazi salutes.
Turns out, Miller is no mere teacher; he’s a member of British Intelligence, sent to the school to snoop. It’s only a matter of time before he discovers that Ilse is planning to abscond to Germany with the girls—as well as the identities of British spies working behind German lines. Naturally, Miller’s attempts to get this vital information to his superiors do not go smoothly, and soon he finds himself on the run from both the Germans and the British—a rather fitting conundrum for a man whose split national identity occasionally leads those around him to doubt his loyalty.
Don’t Mention the War
With the beautiful seaside setting and the lush environs of the school, Six Minutes to Midnight is a lovely film to look at. Director Andy Goddard, who co-wrote the script with Izzard and Celyn Jones, is best known for a robust television career that includes several episodes of Downton Abbey; he’s a logical choice to steer a glossy period production like this, though one couldn’t describe his directing as terribly inventive. Indeed, almost everyone in Six Minutes to Midnight appears to be merely going through the paces, including the legendary Judi Dench as the school’s naive but deeply caring headmistress and James D’Arcy as a British agent on Miller’s tail.
Izzard, on the other hand, puts in a decent effort, which makes sense considering her passion for the project; while Izzard’s rather bedraggled rendition of a British spy on the run is pretty far from James Bond, her performance feels all the more authentic for it. (It’s also great fun to watch her occasionally spit out dialogue in perfect German.) Jim Broadbent has a small but important role as a cheerful local bus driver who assists Miller in his time of need and energizes proceedings whenever he’s onscreen. And while Juri doesn’t have much to work with as the secretive Ilse Keller—she’s enigmatic almost to a fault —her presence in the film was enough to remind me how much I’ve longed to see her in more movies. Juri is probably best known to English-speaking audiences for her supporting role in Blade Runner 2049, but she’s been stellar in numerous German films, including Wetlands and Paula. She deserves to be in the spotlight more.
It’s also worth noting that the young actors cast as the students, in particular Maria Dragus as alpha-girl Agnes and Tijan Marei as owlish misfit Gretel, are quite good. Casting German-speaking actors might seem self-explanatory, but all too many English-language films prefer to cast English-speaking actors and ask them to put on oddball accents; actually casting young German women to play young German women really does make everything in Six Minutes to Midnight feel so much more believable. The problem is that it just isn’t that memorable.
There are some decent moments of tension, but nothing that truly stands out when one considers how many other spy thrillers have come before it, many of which have become truly iconic. The film touches on themes of divided loyalties—Miller’s German heritage, the affection that the German students have for England and Miss Rocholl—and reminds us that the line between enemy and friend is often very blurry, especially when it comes to wartime. (It also reminds us that Nazis are bad, which feels like it should be self-explanatory at this point, but some people do need reminding.) But it could have done so much more with those ideas. In fact, it’s wondering what could have been that makes Six Minutes to Midnight a disappointment, more so than the film itself.
While Six Minutes to Midnight does tell a story about life on the cusp of World War II that has been mostly unknown until now—a rare feat in modern movies, to be sure—it still doesn’t stand out among that incredibly expansive pantheon of films.
What do you think? What is your favorite spy thriller? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Six Minutes to Midnight is released in the U.S. and the UK on March 26, 2021. You can find more international release dates here.
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