“Six Minutes To Midnight,” a British thriller directed by Andy Goddard, reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 espionage classic, The Thirty Nine Steps, in terms of its ambience.
Be that as it may, Goddard’s movie — which will be available on VOD platforms and in selected Canadian theatres on March 26 — is nowhere near as taut, chilling, suspenseful or satisfying as Hitchcock’s masterpiece.
It may be an unfair comparison, I admit, but this is what came to mind as I watched “Six Minutes To Midnight,” which is set in southern Britain and unfolds during the last two weeks before the outbreak of World War II.
At the center of the film is the Augusta-Victoria College, a finishing school in Bexhill-on-Sea attended by young German women keen on acquiring the English language, studying English literature and learning the rules of high society etiquette.
Founded in 1932 and housed in a castle-like building in the bucolic countryside, this one-of-a-kind institution was devoted to cultivating and improving Britain’s bilateral relations with Germany after the carnage of World War I.
With Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, this objective became far more difficult to attain. Nonetheless, the Nazi ruling class sent its daughters to the college, whose official badge was emblazoned with a Union Jack and a black swastika in a red and white field.
The film opens as Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard) arrives at the college to apply for a job as an English teacher. He is interviewed by the stern headmistress, Helene Rocholl (Judi Dench), who informs him that its motto is “faith and perseverance.” Although she has reservations about his qualifications, she hires him.
In short order, Miller meets her assistant, Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), a secretive woman who maintains contact with a German diplomat.
Miller is a competent instructor, and his students appear to like him, especially after learning he’s fluent in German. Being fervent nationalists, they’re all in thrall to Hitler. As they watch a speech he delivers in a newsreel, they are visibly mesmerized by his rousing performance.
Rocholl, being pro-German, thinks that Germany should not be criticized because it aspires to be great. And she understands the students. “These girls are my life,” she tells Miller. “They give me hope. My girls are not the enemy.”
Later on, after finding an antisemitic inscription on a blackboard in a classroom, Rocholl modifies her rosy view of Nazi Germany.
There is more to Miller than meets the eye. Sneaking into Rocholl’s office, he photographs documents on her desk. Could he be a spy?
In a succession of unexplained events, the corpse of a former teacher washes up on shore and Miller’s colleague is fatally shot. Accused of murder, Miller flees, with the police in hot pursuit. One of his pursuers is a detective working for an alliance between Britain and Germany.
As the film heads toward its denouement, two subplots emerge. One of Rocholl’s employees is compiling a list of British agents in Germany, and rumor has it that the students will be secretly flown out of the country before Britain and Germany are at war.
Goddard manages to establish the conditions for suspense, but they don’t pan out. What he creates is a sense of false drama instead of something visceral and real. “Six Minutes To Midnight” had the potential to rise above the ordinary, but alas, it falls short of the mark.