The spy story isn’t nearly as interesting as the rest of this drama
By Diana Beechener
The Augusta Victoria College sat placidly by the sea in Sussex, England for years. The finishing school for elite German families trained girls on social graces and English proficiency. In the late 1930s, however, the girls school takes on a more sinister nature.
English agents know the school now holds daughters from the most prominent Nazi families. With war inevitable, they want to send a spy into the school to keep an eye on the girls, whom they regard as powerful bargaining chips.
The spy they choose is Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard: The High Note), a half-German man who isn’t too keen on the prospect of holding children hostage as part of the war effort. As he gets to know the girls, he sees just how misled they have been. As he begins to doubt his mission, he discovers a troubling detail: The other teacher, Frau Keller (Carla Juri: Amulet) may be working on collecting valuable intelligence for Germany as they hurtle toward war.
Can Miller stop the plot and save the girls?
Writer/producer and star Izzard grew up in the shadow of the Augusta Victoria College, which was a real German finishing school until 1939. This film was a passion project for Izzard, featuring an obscure part of British history. Unfortunately, the fictional spy yarn Izzard weaves around the truth is slapdash and a little uninteresting. There’s a much more fascinating film at the heart of this piece—the story of girls steeped in German propaganda who begin to question it when experiencing life in England.
Director Andy Goddard (Carnival Row) doesn’t seem particularly interested in the espionage storyline either. There are a few attempts at stylish reveals, thanks in large part to some nifty camerawork by Chris Seager (Watchmen). But sadly, the spycraft in Six Minutes to Midnight mostly involves long shots of Izzard running—on the beach, over rocks, through valleys. The film also hinges upon lots of trained spies revealing large sections of their plans in rooms they haven’t checked for security.
It’s a shame so much time is spent on this and not on the more interesting story. The girls at the college are impressionable, with young Gretel (Tijan Marei: Wolfsland) already clearly unsure of the Nazi doctrine and her fellow Germans. As Miller begins to teach and the war nears, more of the girls experience doubts about the political climate they’ll be returning to.
Six Minutes to Midnight also looks at the willful ignorance of those who supported appeasement and tacitly revered the National Socialist Movement. Embodied by the character of Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench: Blithe Spirit), the movie looks at those in wealthy English society who excused the more horrifying aspects of the Nazi party, admiring the strength it projected. It would be a telling bit of criticism if the movie spent more than five minutes developing the idea.
Though the spy storyline is the weakest, Izzard is undoubtedly the star of the show. After decades of honing her stage presence as a standup comedian, Izzard is magnetic on screen. It’s thanks to her that the spy sections of the film work at all. She has a natural chemistry with the girls in the film, and more scenes of Miller bonding with the girls would have gone a long way to sell the tensions in the film. It’s thanks to sheer charm that she keeps the third act from succumbing to the weight of deus ex machina and silly coincidences.
Augusta Victoria College is a fascinating and little-known piece of British history, but the social implications of the finishing school are far more interesting than any fabricated spy story. If you’re looking for a spy lark, this $6 rental will likely keep you entertained, but I am duty-bound as a cinephile to tell you that the vastly superior Eye of the Needle is available for free on Amazon Prime.
Fair Spy Story * PG-13 * 99 mins.