VOD film review: Six Minutes to Midnight
Squandered real-life story4
Dreary spy plot4
Great cast doing their best6
Geoffrey Lovelock | On 27, Mar 2021
Director: Andy Goddard
Cast: Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, James D’Arcy, Jim Broadbent, David Schofield, Carla Juri, Kevin Eldon, Nigel Lindsay, Tijan Marei
Where to watch Six Minutes to Midnight online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW
It’s August, 1939, and the storm-clouds of the Second World War are about to break. But, in picturesque seaside town Bexhill-on-Sea, life at the Augusta Victoria college – a finishing school for girls – carries on regardless, despite the fact the pupils are all the daughters of the Nazi High Command. Set up in 1932, the school is part of Hitler’s push for his Third Reich and the British Empire, which he greatly admired, to live in peace. To reflect this, the school’s badges bear both the Union flag and the Nazi swastika. It’s an unsettling premise – made even more so by dint of being completely true. It’s deliciously rich material – but, sadly, all utterly squandered by this film.
Six Minutes to Midnight is the brainchild of stand-up, actor and marathon runner Eddie Izzard, who grew up in Bexhill-on-Sea, and she should be applauded for recognising the school’s dramatic potential. But the fault lies at the screenplay stage which, perhaps tellingly, bears three names: Izzard, director Andy Goddard and Celyn Jones, actor and one of the film’s exec producers. In short, there are strong indications that the story and screenplay were almost an afterthought and, whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly how it seems.
At the heart of a film that has much to recommend it is the insurmountable problem that the writers failed to find the story in the real-life Augusta Victoria college. There are hints in the subplots of what might have been – Judi Dench’s head mistress, who finds herself chanting “Sieg Heil” and giving the Nazi salute alongside her girls; or a pupil, Gretel (a strong performance from young German actress Tijan Marei) – but they’re all put to one side for a dreary and workmanlike spy plot.
Opening with the murder of the school’s English teacher on a pier – bringing to mind Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock – it then borrows heavily from John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (an ur-text of the spy novel set on the eve of World War One) as Izzard’s spy – undercover, posing as a teacher, his mission to prevent the girls being whisked away by plane back to the Fatherland – ends up on the run, framed for murder.
Rather than adding credence to the film, the referencing of such totemic writers – all in the service of Izzard’s louche and (unintentionally?) comic performance – gives the whole affair the feel of a pastiche, and a lazy one at that.
Had the film committed to its fugitive storyline, then it might have made for a decent thriller – but its lack of faith is evident throughout, especially when caddish bad guys in trilbies turn up. The espionage plot seems like a bolt-on, and it muscles in on what is, one suspects, the original story. Izzard’s half-German schoolteacher turning up at the school and finding himself confronted with a classroom full of Nazi teenage girls, some brainwashed, others more questioning – would have made a far superior film.
The ghost of that story is still present, but merely adds to the audience’s frustration when wading through the lacklustre thriller plot. Judi Dench provides the film’s only moments of true pathos – her dawning horror, for instance, as she witnesses one of the German teachers give a lesson on “the differences between Jews and Gentiles” – and Jim Broadbent provides heart as a plucky, patriotic bus-driver.
Overall, though, this is a mess of a film, its few redeeming features lost thanks to an underwritten and poorly focused script. A real shame.
Six Minutes to Midnight is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.