In a strange but real corner of pre-WWII Britain, there was a finishing school on the south English seaside made up of 20 teen girls, all of whom were daughters from influential German families in Nazi high command. They were there to learn English and be ambassadors for the National Socialist party, which had a small following in Britain at the time. But in August 1939 (17 days before WWII formally began), it was clear that the girls’ presence in this nation was not welcome, and it was assumed that someone would attempt to secretly extract them back to Germany before they were taken as prisoners of war.
In the opening moments of Six Minutes to Midnight, a male English teacher at the school realizes that a secret camera he had stashed in his room has disappeared. He attempts to escape the area only to end up dead days later, washed up on the beach. Less than a week later, replacement teacher Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard) arrives at the school, eager to use his knowledge of the German language (his father was German) to teach the girls English. He’s being carefully observed by headmistress Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), and her devoted assistant Ilse Keller (Carla Juri, Morris From America, Blade Runner 2049, Amulet), whose chief responsibility is to teach the girls how to represent the ideal of German womanhood.
Not surprisingly, Miller turns out to be a British agent, sent to determine if and when the Germans might attempt an extraction. But through a turn of events, he himself is suspected of murder and he spends a great deal of the film running away from the authorities all the while attempting to get to a phone to warn his agency of the coming German arrival.
Directed by Andy Goddard (A Kind of Murder, many episodes of “Downton Abbey”), who co-wrote the film with Izzard and Celyn Jones, Six Minutes to Midnight works as an intriguing spy thriller for about half its running time, as we learn of the unusual circumstances that allow this school to exist at all and how increasing anti-German sentiments both threaten the establishment and give those in charge of it the will to keep going. We also get to know some of the students, in particular Gretel (Tijan Marei), who seems to be the only one of the girls who isn’t on board with Nazism and finds small, affirming ways of bucking the rules of the school. Also at the perimeter of these events is bus driver Charlie (Jim Broadbent), who is very protective of the girls he drives around but is also a good British citizen.
Around the time that investigator Capt. Drey (James D’Arcy) arrives to look into a mysterious murder Miller is suspected of committing, the film’s plausibility and intrigue begin to evaporate, and what we’re left with feels trite and cliche as far as wartime spy movies go. I adore Izzard as both a comedic and dramatic actor, but something about watching him running around, evading the police in a stolen marching band uniform seems a bit too on the nose and silly. Juri has the juiciest role as the mild-mannered second in command at the school, who might have a bit more happening with her character than she lets on. And the film comes dangerously close to wanting us to sympathize with the unique position these girls are in, being trapped in a hostile country but full of dangerous ideas about racial purity and what being a good German entails.
Six Minutes to Midnight has a solid enough cast to make this a painless 100-minute watch, but its unfocused second half makes it feel less than authentic despite the impressive locations and period costumes. Aside from D’Arcy’s cartoonishly exaggerated performance, the performances are also solid, with Dench turning in great work as a woman torn between national loyalties. Still, the unusual nature of the story makes it enough of a curiosity to recommend checking it out once all of your pre-Oscar viewings are completed.
The film is in select theaters and available via VOD. Please follow CDC, health department and venue regulations if attending a screening indoors.
Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support!