Producers: Andy Evans, Sean Marley, Ade Shannon, Laure Vaysse and Sarah Townsend Director: Andy Goddard Screenplay: Celyn Jones, Eddie Izzard and Andy Goddard 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 and Kevin Eldon Distributor: IFC Films
The Augusta Victoria school, founded in 1934 in the East Sussex coastal town of Bexhill-on-Sea, is a fascinating historical curio, an establishment where the daughters of Nazi elite were sent to be prepared to enter easily into the upper echelons of British society, helping to create a bond between the two countries. The daughters of English and Finnish sympathizers to the German cause were also enrolled there under headmistress Helene Rocholl.
The school operated for five years, largely accepted by the local community. But its continuance became impossible in September, 1939, when Hitler’s invasion of Poland led to a declaration of war by Britain against Germany.
It’s employed as the fulcrum of the plot in this would-be espionage thriller from Andy Goddard, whose past work—which includes episodes of both “Downton Abbey” and Marvel television programs, would seem a great background for a piece that tries to combine period English elegance with “wrong man” excitement in the Hitchcock style. (Just think of “The 39 Steps,” an obvious inspiration.)
In the event, however, “Six Minutes to Midnight” emerges as a creaky, old-fashioned World War II spy movie, so clumsily plotted and laxly directed that it seems almost a parody, despite a first-rate cast.
And one could justifiably complain that the narrative it fashions around the fascinating school is entirely fanciful. It’s undeniable that the place was intended as a mechanism for Nazi infiltration of England, but that notion has been embellished by Goddard, star Eddie Izzard—whose childhood in the area was the springboard for the script—and Celyn Jones (who also takes a supporting role)—into an increasingly implausible tale of Nazi skullduggery and English heroism that, while singularly inept, saves the day.
The story is set in the last weeks of the summer of 1939, and Augusta Victoria is presented as a seedbed of German espionage, where the names of British agents serving in Europe are being assiduously collected. The English intelligence service, through imperious Colonel Smith (David Schofield), has inserted a spy in the school in the person of Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay), the faculty English teacher, but when he’s unmasked and disappears (he’s been murdered, though the body isn’t immediately found, and by whom is never made entirely clear), Smith replaces him with innocuous-seeming Thomas Miller (Izzard), whom Rocholl (Judi Dench) hires out of sheer necessity.
Though Rocholl is in titular charge, the real guiding force behind what’s happening on the campus is the gym mistress Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), who often employs the strongest of the girls, Astrid (Maria Dragus), as her stand-in. Astrid’s counterpart among the girls is Gretel (Tijan Marei), who exhibits serious reservations about Keller’s whole Nazi Youth program.
When Miller ferrets out evidence of the German espionage at the school, he’s framed for the murder of Smith, which leads to him being pursued by the police across the countryside, and despite assistance he receives from Charlie (Jim Broadbent), he’s captured. That leads to the intervention of Captain Drey (James D’Arcy), a smooth intelligence officer, and his beefy partner Corporal Willis (Jones).
What follows is a succession of double-and-triple-crosses that grow exponentially preposterous. The culmination is an unusual plain near a castle the girls have fortuitously visited on a field trip, where Keller’s effort to fly them all back to Germany just as the Polish crisis is occurring Miller attempts to foil. (The British intend to detain them, presumably as hostages to use against their powerful parents—not very sportsmanlike, one might think.)
None of this rigmarole has any basis in fact: the students and staff successfully fled the school before the war broke out.
Nonetheless as incredible as the plot is, it might have worked as enjoyable humbug were it better executed. Goddard directs lethargically, and as edited by Mike Jones and John Gilbert the purportedly exciting sequences merely drag; the closing confrontation, murkily shot by cinematographer Chris Seager, is a complete muddle. Izzard makes a pale hero, and while Broadbent scores some points as the curmudgeonly driver, D’Arcy comes off as ludicrously oily as the bigwig investigator. Juri, Dragus, Marei and the other girls are all fine, but Dench can do little with a role that’s meant to be mysterious but by the end is simply dense.
Apart from that visually garbled final sequence, Seager’s cinematography is lustrous, using the lovely locations (actually in Wales, not Sussex) to best advantage; Candida Otton’s production design and Lucinda Wright’s costumes are lovely, too. Marc Streitenfeld’s is pleasant to listen to—certainly more so than the clichéd dialogue.
There’s doubtlessly an engrossing film to be made about the Augusta Victoria school. A pity “Six Minutes to Midnight”—incidentally, part of a coded message not explained until the last act, though it’s obviously also meant to indicate the imminent outbreak of war—isn’t it.