Six Minutes to Midnight
- Emma Simmonds
- 22 March 2021
Mildly exciting 1930s spy film, written by and starring Eddie Izzard, and centring on a very interesting institution
'What sort of Englishman would accept a post teaching Herr Hitler's League of German Girls?' wonders Judi Dench's suspicious headmistress when Eddie Izzard's Thomas Miller rocks up at the Augusta-Victoria College in Bexhill-on-Sea, a finishing school for the daughters of the German elite, including the Nazi high command. Izzard, who spent some of her childhood in Bexhill, has fashioned a spy story around this admittedly fascinating institution but it doesn't exactly deliver on its promise.
Working with co-screenwriters Andy Goddard, who also directs, and Celyn Jones, the trio set their story in 1939, with tensions high as Britain teeters on the cusp of war. Dench's Miss Rocholl is right to be wary, as Thomas is a British agent sent to replace the unfortunate Mr Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay), who met his maker at the outset. The students – who include The White Ribbon's Maria Dragus, and Tijan Marei as the canniest of the bunch – are potential bargaining chips, with their continued presence in England a good sign. Since the girls being spirited away almost certainly spells danger, keeping a close eye is essential. Blade Runner 2049's Carla Juri plays their governess and gym teacher, with a very guilty look on her face.
Despite the strength of the basic premise, Six Minutes to Midnight begins a little like a teatime murder mystery, with the aesthetic too bright and light for the material; it's taking its cue from the joviality of the seaside setting perhaps, but it's typical of a film that never really manages to convey the enormity of what's at stake. That its director worked on Downton Abbey may come as no surprise. There are flurries of mild excitement to be fair, with the film entering 39 Steps-style territory when Thomas goes on the run, yet such moments are lacking in anything resembling Hitchcock's flair for idiosyncratic wit and tension.
Thomas is quite a sober and flimsy role for Izzard and she doesn't really bring the charisma here that she does to her comedy and personal appearances. The film shows the discomfort of putting national and political loyalty above human decency and compassion – but never really explores such conflict satisfactorily, though Juri communicates some of the stress of her character's situation and, unsurprisingly, Dench brings depth and complexity to her own turn, while there's nice work too from Dragus and Marei. However, the hokeyness of a few key scenes is not helped by an overblown James D'Arcy as a dastardly police captain, and compared to a similarly themed, wartime classic like Went the Day Well? it just feels like fluff.
Available to watch on Sky Cinema from Fri 26 Mar.