Review: Six Minutes to Midnight Smothers Its Historical Appeal in Melodrama

Andy Goddard’s film clumsily superimposes a frenzied, completely fictional spy adventure onto a fascinating fragment of pre-war history.

Six Minutes to Midnight
Photo: IFC Films

Bexhill-on-Sea, an idyllic coastal town in the southeast coast of England, was a geopolitical curiosity in 1939. The way director Andy Goddard’s Six Minutes to Midnight tells it, patriotic Brits frolicked on the town’s beach, dimly aware of war looming on the horizon. But just a bit inland, the Augusta Victoria School, run by the oh-so-magnanimous Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), offers a home and picturesque grounds for learning to a group of teenage girls with one thing in common: Their dads are Nazis.

The film draws its central premise from history, as the school, housed in a large Victorian villa, really did serve the daughters and goddaughters of the German High Command, born to be loyal till death to their family’s worldview. But by superimposing a frenzied, completely fictional spy adventure onto this fascinating fragment of pre-war history, Six Minutes to Midnight smothers most of its historical appeal in clumsy melodrama.

Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard, who co-wrote the film with Goddard and co-star Celyn Jones) arrives at the school when a post for an English teacher opens up, after his predecessor’s (Nigel Lindsay) body washes up on the shore. But Miller is a spy, sent to infiltrate the school in order to prevent the girls from returning to Germany before the British government can take them as prisoners of war to use as bargaining chips against their powerful fathers.

At the heart of the history that inspired the film are questions about the capacity of young people to unlearn a belief system, but these go unposed here. When the girls salute en masse as Hitler delivers a speech on the radio, Six Minutes to Midnight presents their fervent Nazism as a sort of demonic possession that comes over them. It’s fair to suggest that most of them might never push back on their homegrown ideology, but the film, in framing its portrait of Nazi evil around the unhinged, murderous sports teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), never quite holds nearly adult children accountable for their beliefs. Ilse is set on returning the girls to their homeland, along with intel she’s been collecting on English spies in Germany, and she delivers some rather heavy-handed lessons to the girls on how to hate like a Nazi.

If villainous Ilse is a caricature, Izzard’s spy hero is a cipher. It’s possible he’s telling the truth in what little he reveals about his tragic past (“You married?” Miss Rocholl asks in her interview, to which Miller replies, “I was…Spanish flu”), but he’s not really a teacher, of course, and he might as well be lying about the rest for all the film cares about its protagonist’s motivations. Except for bonding briefly with teenage outcast Gretel (Tijan Marei), Miller’s all spy business. And though we learn early on that he’s really there to help the government seize the girls as political pawns rather than protect them, Miller’s occasional waffling on the morality of this plan never figures too centrally in his decision-making.

The screenplay discovers too late, then, that the character that actually matters most is Dench’s Miss Rocholl, a half-German Englishwoman who begins to realize that her lifelong devotion to the upkeep of Anglo-German relations no longer holds up against the destructive reality of Hitler’s regime. But since the film largely abandons Miss Rocholl in favor of chasing Miller through a madcap spy-on-the-run plotline once he’s accused of executing a fellow spy, Dench doesn’t have time to play out the gradual redemptive arc she deserves.

While some of the dialogue is preposterously, almost farcically, overwrought (“I’m done!” cries Jones’s Corporal Willis as he bleeds out), the film is often visually well-crafted with its sweeping looks at the cliffs and crannies over which Izzard spends much of the film sprinting and scrambling. In Six Minutes to Midnight’s most arresting tableau, it’s revealed that the strange formations that the girls do in their gymnastics exercises have all been a rehearsal for one pivotal moment: The students, in midnight darkness on the top of a hill, send up flares to summon a German plane. But with no characters of substance to illuminate, even this memorable image with its shocks of light makes only a fleeting impression.

 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, Kevin Eldon  Director: Andy Goddard  Screenwriter: Celyn Jones, Eddie Izzard, Andy Goddard  Distributor: IFC Films  Running Time: 102 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2021

Dan Rubins

Dan Rubins is a writer, composer, and arts nonprofit leader based in New York City. He has previously written about theater for CurtainUp, Theatre Is Easy, A Younger Theatre, and the journal Shakespeare.

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