Dir: Andy Goddard. Cast: Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, Carla Juri, Jim Broadbent, James D’Arcy, Kevin Eldon. 12A cert, 99 mins
The Augusta-Victoria College for Girls was an exclusive finishing school in Bexhill-on-Sea to which high-ranking Nazis sent their daughters from 1932 to 1939. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t believe if someone invented it – and yet that setting is the one aspect of the British spy yarn Six Minutes to Midnight that isn’t entirely fabricated.
This eccentric attempt at a thriller, set on the eve of the Second World War, is roughly three-fifths John Buchan intrigue to two-fifths Ealing comedy, which suggests a degree of tonal confusion. Cooked up from a screenplay by Eddie Izzard, the Welsh actor Celyn Jones and director Andy Goddard, it has a middle section in which Izzard’s main character, a British spy who poses as a teacher at the school, goes on the run from the local plod, nearly gets caught napping under a groyne, and swipes the outfit of a marching band member to blend in on a summer promenade. The film is like a cheeky seaside postcard with swastikas and cryptography on the reverse.
At Augusta-Victoria, the headmistress Miss Rocholl, played with bewildered sympathy by Judi Dench, is none the wiser about the man she’s hired. Thomas Miller (a dapper Izzard) is to all intents and purposes the new English master, recruited to replace a suspicious predecessor who seems to have washed up in the briny. Miller is taken aback by the self-possession of the 20-strong student body – strutting mädchen all, who make teasing comments in German about his lack of virility, and tune into the Führer’s propaganda broadcasts with feisty Sieg Heils.
In fact, Miller is reporting back to his spymasters about any evidence of Anglo-Nazi collaboration he can find. Suspicion might begin with Miss Rocholl, a patsy with some rather sentimental notions of pan-Europeanism, but it switches on closer inspection to Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), apparently the only other teacher on site. This staunch mistress has hatched an emergency airlift plan, determined to swipe the girls away from the clutches of the British Secret Service should war break out.
There are more disturbing, historically curious avenues that Six Minutes to Midnight could have gone down, perhaps if it had pondered with any depth the point of view of the real-life students themselves. Whatever the collective noun might actually be for this many scarily polished Nazi schoolgirls, the script decides it’s “a plague”, and leaves it at that. This lot could teach the von Trapps the true meaning of conformity. Dench might get plenty of weepy close-ups worrying about their fate, but suspense is hobbled because they’re treated like so many robotic pawns – and, as a villain, Juri’s primly dogmatic answer to Julie Andrews is not exactly distinctive.
Ineffectual as it is, however, the film has a redemptively silly quality. Without succumbing to complete self-mockery, it keeps you smiling. Stalwart actors appear and chivvy things along with the air of doing the production a favour – especially Jim Broadbent, who pops up every reel or two, for virtually no reason, playing a chummy bus-driver. Kevin Eldon is a jobsworth copper, and James D’Arcy does his best Robert Donat as an amused Government agent, much given to saying “old boy” at the end of every sentence, even as we start to surmise he’s up to no good.
The proportion of scenes you’ll manage to take seriously is quite low – it’s just a case of not minding. One daft highlight occurs at a pierside phone booth, when Izzard’s Miller, in his pilfered brass-band attire, must put a life-or-death call through to spy command, but a local biddy in the box won’t have it. Anyone who relished Patrick Barlow’s stage parody of The 39 Steps stands a fair chance of enjoying this haphazard curio, even if the combination of heart-on-sleeve and tongue-in-cheek could hardly seem less expert.
Available via Sky Cinema from tomorrow