Who’d have thought that sleepy Bexhill On Sea would have housed a dangerous secret in the months running up to the start of World War II? It came in the shape of a girls’ boarding school, the Augusta Victoria College, which didn’t just have close connections with Germany, but also counted close relatives of senior Nazis among its students. It made for a remarkable school badge, one which displayed both the Union Jack and the Swastika and provided Eddie Izzard with the idea for Six Minutes To Midnight, a story based on a factual place but with a narrative that’s pure fiction.
Izzard co-wrote the script, along with fellow actor Celyn Jones and director Andy Goddard, and also takes the lead role, Thomas Miller, a secret agent who arrives at the school after the mysterious death of its English teacher. Masquerading as the replacement, Miller starts to delve into what he suspects is a sinister plot but finds himself framed for murder and goes on the run – from the people he works for – in an effort to prove his own innocence and prevent the German girls at the school being abducted back to their homeland. The declaration of war is just days away.
A self-confessed history buff, Izzard brings a convincing sense of period to the film and, coupled with some attractive cinematography, it has plenty of visual appeal. Neither, however, can make up for the film’s shortcomings. That it’s essentially an traditional espionage story with transparent leanings towards John Buchan’s classic The Thirty Nine Steps needn’t be a downside but, with a shortage of tension to move the narrative along, the result is simply old-fashioned. Even references to other British movie favourites (watch out for the visual nod to David Lean’s Oliver Twist), the comforting nostalgia and a classy cast can’t save it from, at its very best, being solid and, at its worst, clichéd and stuffy.
That cast includes no less than Judi Dench as the school’s head teacher, a woman clinging desperately to the ideals of international co-operation but whose eyes are eventually opened to the reality of impending war. Not the most demanding role she’s ever played, admittedly, but she still lends a sprinkling of gravitas to proceedings. Jim Broadbent, however, isn’t given much more than jolly comedy turn as a bus driver who turns out to be something more, while James D’Arcy (also behind one of this week’s other releases, Made In Italy) is suitably sinister as a member of British intelligence.
But with a narrative that doesn’t always hold together and direction that lacks a crucial urgency, Six Minutes To Midnight struggles to wholly capture the audience’s attention. Fans of a bit of wartime espionage will be happy enough, but a broader audience will probably give it no more than a passing glance.
Drama, Thriller | Cert: 12A | Sky Cinema | | 26 March 2021 | Dir. Andy Goddard | Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, Carla Juri, Jim Broadbent, James D’Arcy.