Set on the eve of WWII, Six Minutes to Midnight is a moderately engaging spy thriller. The film is set mainly in the Augusta-Victoria College, situated in a sprawling old mansion in Bexhill On Sea, near Brighton. It’s an upmarket British finishing school for the daughters and goddaughters of high-ranking Nazis. The girls are learning to be ambassadors and future leaders for the future fascist government. The school promotes British-German relations, but tensions between the two countries are running high and as such it has been under surveillance by the British authorities.
Following the murder of a British spy working undercover at the school, English teacher Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard) arrives to take up a temporary teaching position. He works for British intelligence and he is tasked with what is going on in the school. The school is run by the imperious headmistress Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), who is reluctant to bring in a newcomer under the circumstances. and Miller is uncertain if she is a Nazi as well. The other main teacher is the secretive Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), herself a former student of the school. Miller is sympathetic towards Gretel (Tijan Marei), a rather introverted student who feels bullied and alienated.
Miller learns of a plan to evacuate the girls and repatriate them back to Germany in the next few days. The German government fears that the girls themselves my be corrupted by learning British values or may be used as bargaining chips in the upcoming conflict between the two countries. But before he can pass on this information there is another murder and Miller finds himself suspected of the crime as well as accused of being a traitor. He is pursued by Captain Drey (James D’Arcy) and Corporal Willis (Celyn Jones) and goes on the run across windswept fields and dusty roads. This race against time to prove his innocence recalls the classic spy thriller The 39 Steps. However the film lacks that same level of suspense that Hitchcock established.
The Augusta-Victoria College was a real school that operated from 1932-39, and this film grew out of Izzard’s fascination with it and its purpose. Izzard has co-written the script with Jones and director Andy Goddard, and, while the film is based on a true story, they have taken liberties with the basic facts for dramatic purposes. There is also a nice McGuffin with a list of top-ranking Nazis that Miller finds hidden in a desk drawer, but it leads nowhere. With the main setting being a boarding school for girls, the film also recalls in part Peter Weir’s atmospheric Australian classic Picnic At Hanging Rock.
However, there are a few problems with the creation of the school here – it is a boarding school, but we never get to see the kitchens or dining room, there don’t seem to be any laundry facilities, cleaning staff or garden staff, no supervision over the girls’ dormitory, and we only get to see two teachers and the headmistress. This may be the result of limited budget and resources, but it did grate a little.
Six Minutes To Midnight has been efficiently directed by Goddard, who is best known for his work on the television series Downton Abbey. He tries to milk the material for maximum suspense. This is certainly a handsomely mounted production and there is some great production design to create the limited interiors of the school, giving it an old-fashioned opulence. The period details reeks of authenticity. The film is set on the British coastline and there is some superb cinematography from Chris Seager.
Dench brings her usual sense of gravitas and dignity to her role as the headmistress whose attitude towards fascism and the German anti-Jewish sentiments are for the most part ambivalent. Izzard does well as the stiff lipped British agent in peril but she (Izzard identifies as transgender and prefers to use feminine pronouns) is certainly not your typical-looking action hero.
The rather obscure sounding title comes from the special telephone number for the war office in London – 1154 – and the code word needed for verification.
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film