There is one moment of pure kitschy delight in Six Minutes to Midnight, the weak-tea period thriller starring Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench. A cop played by James D’Arcy, wearing a detective’s fedora and a look of intense concentration, is standing near a German woman he thinks is being insufficiently grateful. He registers her tone and narrows his eyes in suspicion. Then, with the pace of a glacier leaving Europe, he turns to face her. “The word you’re looking for” — he bites out, giving each word its maximum metrical weight — “is danke.”
D’Arcy has figured out the Six Minutes to Midnight assignment and is completing it correctly. Task one: The actor is to draw out the dialogue so it occupies the longest possible amount of time, lest this underplotted, underwritten film turn out to be the same length as a television episode. (Question: Should it have been a television episode? The word you’re looking for is … absolutely.) Task two: The actor should infuse the narratively flat movie with some zest of his or her own. In D’Arcy’s case, he has chosen a wildly over-egged delivery, slicing each word onto the plate as though he’s serving Christmas ham. The movie is dogged by wobbly reasoning and dramaturgical lassitude, but at least one actor tries to spice it up. There are certainly other performers who emerge unembarrassed — Dench does a lovely turn from foolishness into new wisdom, for instance. But D’Arcy is as silly as the film itself and the only one who knows what movie he’s in.
Andy Goddard directs a script he wrote with Izzard and Celyn Jones (who appears in a small role). Izzard and Jones are credited with the story, and they’ve certainly found an interesting little kernel of reality for it. In the late 1930s, the Augusta Victoria College in Bexhill-on-Sea catered to young German women, operating as a finishing school for the daughters of the German High Command. The opportunities for intrigue in such a setting would seem to abound, though the writers settle on a weird one: the threat that the girls may be smuggled out. At this point in 1939, war hadn’t been declared, so surely they could have just bought tickets home? The film swears up and down that their departure would give Germany’s game away — not, say, the 1.5 million Germans massing at the Polish border. But logic, shmogic; the girls are the movie’s MacGuffins, alternately seen as menacing Nazis and innocent pawns. We just need to know that the hero wants them to be in place X but the villain would prefer place Y, then we can root for the right outcome.
Izzard plays Thomas Miller, a teacher sent to the school after the former English teacher, Mr. Wheatley, abandons his post. The film begins with Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay) fleeing the school in a panic, calling his handler at Whitehall and screaming that his cover is blown. He runs to the pier, then vanishes mysteriously. His replacement, Miller, heads to Bexhill on a bus driven by British Treasure Jim Broadbent, meets with headmistress Miss Rocholl (Dench), and is soon teaching English to the girls, who have little swastikas stitched on their vests. Their entire education is up to him and the games mistress, Ilse (the sensitive Carla Juri). “Tell us a story,” these nearly adult women chorus at him, unbelievably, right before he teaches them to sing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” When, later, there is some moist-eyed Dead Poets Society–style leave-taking between teacher and students, you will have to cast your mind back to this moment to understand everyone’s emotion. It will not make sense.
Miller does some government-approved sleuthing, overhears the plot to move the students, gets framed for a murder, and begins running from the police. In the first part of this year, the real Izzard ran 32 marathons in 31 days to raise money for charity. This willingness to run 26.2 miles at the drop of a hat infects the screenplay so that nearly every action sequence entails Izzard running across a beach, down the pier, into a field. (I counted six running scenes, though there may be more.) All this time, Marc Streitenfeld’s agitated score tries to gin up excitement and tension, but putting nervous strings under Nazis waggling their eyebrows at one another steers the mood toward cheeseball. The star casting also throws the balance out of whack. Dench’s finely calibrated portrait of a woman swayed into Nazi sympathizing by the love of her charges is quite beautiful — she has a way of shadowing her face when standing in full light — but its emotional coherence casts all the other cardboard characters into stark relief.
Six Minutes to Midnight was shot as a feature and released on streaming only because of the COVID situation. But there is a distinctly televisual vibe to the entire thing, and the “pre-credits” position of Wheatley’s death is part of it, one of the telltale markers of a one-hour crime drama. On U.K. TV, there’s a trend of comedians heading up costume mysteries: Rowan Atkinson as Maigret, Mark Williams as Father Brown; Izzard as Miller could fit comfortably into that tradition. Perhaps the trouble with Six Minutes to Midnight is that its writing — hurried and vague when it comes to character, laconic and slack when the thriller elements are in play — would have righted itself if keyed to a series instead of a film. Izzard, Jones, and Goddard could then have paid more attention to giving their characters personalities. Apart from Miss Rocholl, people do very little reasoning or thinking, and their motivations grow less clear during the film, rather than more. Miller is a cipher, the young women are ciphers, Ilse is a cipher.
It’s easy to see the attraction of devising fiction about the fascinating Augusta Victoria College. According to other accounts, the young women were at the Bexhill finishing school to find matches among the British upper crust — if, for instance, the real von Ribbentrop’s daughter had snagged a husband in the House of Lords, she might have been able to delay Britain’s entry into the war. The film doesn’t actually broach any of this, in that we barely learn why the girls are in England, and we only glancingly encounter the right-wing British who are willing to toast fascism in the name of international class solidarity. Instead, Six Minutes to Midnight spends most of its 90 minutes staging oddly unexciting spy-movie scenarios, like Miller taking microfilm of the roster of a not actually secret Anglo-German friendship society. The movie is a sequence of missed opportunities for thoughtful exploration, relevance, and adventure. Someone else may take up the scenario and make something exciting from it, but for now, the word you’re looking for is … nein.