Think World War II and you inevitably think of Winston Churchill – the speeches, the fat cigar and, eventually, that victory sign which became a reality – but what about the Prime Minister that came before him? The one who announced the declaration of war with Germany and who served at Number 10 for another eight months until Churchill took over the reins. The image of Neville Chamberlain waving the treaty that was supposed to guarantee peace – and soon wasn’t worth the paper it was written on – sealed his fate in history. He was seen as gullible and weak, yet in Munich: The Edge Of War, he emerges as the most unexpected of heroes.
The story, however, is based on Robert Harris’ best seller of the same name so, despite appearances to the contrary, this is still a work of fiction. It’s autumn 1938, only 20 years since the end of WWI, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia and Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) is desperately negotiating for peace. At the same time, old friends Hugh Legat (George MacKay) and Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewohner) are working for their respective governments and find themselves re-united at the emergency conference in Munich, called to prevent yet another conflict in Europe. As talks get under way, they find themselves at the centre of a situation which could seriously affect the outcome of negotiations.
We, and history, know the eventual outcome of the Munich conference. But all too often Christian Schwochow’s film betrays an uncertainty about what it wants to be – pure fiction, or dramatized documentary. Its re-creations of some of the most famous historical moments – Chamberlain waving that piece of paper, especially – are admirably precise, yet end up creating more than a little confusion in the audience’s mind, especially when Irons is on screen as Chamberlain. The resemblance is more than worthy of a double take or two. The actual narrative is even more problematic, with essentially a slow moving political story suddenly lurching into espionage thriller territory and doing so with such a jolt that the two halves of the film don’t make a cohesive whole. A running time of just over two hours doesn’t help, undermining most of the attempts to create suspense, and a sub-plot involving Legat and his home life bogs things down even further by taking the story up a blind alley.
Nonetheless, the director is blessed with lead actors who encourage our involvement with their characters and keep a firm hold on our attention. The cast is a combination of English and German talent, with the latter speaking their native language, and Niewohner and MacKay convince as two friends divided by politics yet with similar principles. It’s yet another example of MacKay’s ability to carry a film with ease. As Chamberlain, Irons isn’t the trusting statesman made to look foolish by Hitler, but a crafty, almost cunning, politician disguised by a posh accent and bushy moustache, who postponed the inevitable at Munich and bought the country invaluable time to plan and prepare for what was to come.
Ultimately, the cast just about saves the day. What it can’t do, though, is completely make up for the film’s sagging storytelling: only as it hurtles towards its climax do we get something closer to the thriller it wants to be. It may be set at a time when the future of Europe was on the edge, but audiences are more likely to be sat further back in their seats.
Thriller, History | Cert: 12A | Netflix | UK cinemas from 7 January 2022. Netflix, 21 January 2022 | Dir. Christian Schwochow | George MacKay, Jannis Niewohner, Jeremy Irons, Ulrich Mattes, Jessica Brown Findlay, Alex Jennings, Sandra Huller.