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Six minutes to midnight

Peter W Sheehan  |  15 April 2021

SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT. Starring: Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard and Carla Juri. Also, James D’Arcy, and Jim Broadbent. Directed by Andy Goddard. Rated M (Mature themes and violence). 100 min.

This British WWII drama is based on a screenplay written by Andy Goddard, Eddie Izzard, and Celyn Jones. Shortly before WWII, a teacher disappears from an Anglo-German private finishing school, and the movie explores the aftermath. The film is set in the summer of 1939 in an English coastal town, before the entry of Britain into WWII, and its credits communicate that the film is inspired by “incredible true events”.

At a time when the tensions between the UK and Germany were high, but an alliance existed, the daughters and goddaughters of the Nazi elite were being educated in British finishing schools. This film follows the education of young women at “The Augusta Victoria College”. The school was the first and last of its kind in Britain, and was under surveillance following the mysterious disappearance of one of its teachers, Mr Wheatley.

Wheatley was an agent, working for the British Government, and another agent, Thomas Miller (EIzzard), answers an ad to teach English placed by the school’s governess, Miss Rochelle (Dench). Miss Rocholl wanted to hire someone who would help her prepare her girls for Anglo-German fellowship, and she stoutly informs Miller at interview that daughters of the Nazi High Command will be under his charge. Shortly afterwards, the missing teacher’s body is found washed up on a beach near the school. Yet another agent is killed, and Miller is framed for murder. Miller suspects the involvement of the school’s German tutor, Ilse Keller (Juri), after finding that the teachings of the Third Reich are being taught by her at the school.

This is a period drama with visuals that are more impactful than what the film’s script and direction deliver. The paradox of a slice of Nazi Germany managing to exist in a scenic English coastal town cries out for some resolution. Good camerawork starkly heightens the tension, but resolution is affected by the strength of the film’s direction and narrative thrust. Various themes that parallel disturbing political events lie unresolved. England was on the brink of war with Germany, and viewers needed to know what effects that could have on family connections with Germany, and the ideals of National Socialism, and how that might affect the secret mission being planned to transport the girls back to Germany. The film provocatively argues that everyone is capable of good and bad, no matter what their beliefs, but a scenic coastal town, and conflicting value messages, distract viewers from the film’s essential darkness.

The striking images of schoolgirls dressed similarly, marching in uniformed-formation file, captures visually the dark tone and spirit of the movie, but the film’s narrative and direction stay out of harmony with its visual thrust. At times, however, the delivery of lines tempts the viewer to think otherwise, and when that happens, it is nearly always due to the acting prowess of Judi Dench, who always looks (ceremoniously, at least) in charge. Dressed in dark blue and black, she espouses the human values of the film: Stand proudly by one’s country, she says. But as she witheringly looks at Miller, her verbal asides strongly suggest that sinister things lie elsewhere.

This is a movie that maintains visual force in the scenes it employs to tell its story. The film entertains, but its core messages about National Socialism needing to be taught to young German girls to prepare them for the aftermath of war are not coherently developed, and the film massively engages in cultural stereotyping. The film is directed as an espionage movie with adventure-titling to convey (in coded form) the urgency of time. It is visually arresting, but filled with double agents, bleak messages, and heavy-handed acting and scripting – it doesn’t deliver, despite the impressive efforts of Judi Dench.

Transmission Films
Released 22 April 2021
Peter W Sheehan is an Associate of Jesuit Media


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