Inspired by the real history of Bexhill-on-Sea’s Augusta Victoria College, a 1930s finishing school for the daughters of the Nazi elite, “Six Minutes to Midnight,” helmed by Andy Goddard, wants to be a Hitchcockian thriller, but merely manages a familiar pastiche peopled with stock characters that should divert less-discriminating viewers. The clunky plot, set circa August 1939, centers on an undercover British agent who infiltrates the school disguised as a new teacher. With the U.K. and Germany on the brink of war, his assignment is to discover if Deutschland plans on repatriating their young flowers of maidenhood and whether said Mädchen might serve as captive pawns in Britain’s diplomatic chess game.
After his predecessor mysteriously disappears, Thomas Miller (a spirited Eddie Izzard, also co-writer and executive producer) becomes the school’s English master. He’s disdainfully welcomed by the school’s headmistress Miss Rocholl (a subdued Judi Dench) as a “journeyman” teacher. In a telling indicator of the lower-budget nature of this project, the institution Thomas joins seems surprisingly bare bones, consisting of Rocholl, the 20 teen girls, German and gymnastics tutor Ilse (Carla Juri, pretty but one-dimensional) and an unseen part-time maid.
The script offers little scope for character development, leaving the performers to play to type instead. This is particularly true in the case of the girls. Only a few stand out from the uniformed crowd: bossy Astrid (Maria Dragus) and meek Gretel (Tijan Marei). Meanwhile, Ilse, a former Olympic athlete, is quickly revealed as a baddie, undermining any suspense.
When Thomas’ superior (David Schofield) is killed while they are together, he is framed and forced to go on the run, à la Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps.” Will Thomas be able to reach Whitehall and make his report? Will he be able to stop the evacuation of the girls? The generic screenplay leaves little doubt, but with another hour to fill, it takes its meandering time. Lengthy scenes of Thomas running along the beachfront, nicking the band uniform of an unfortunate flugelhorn player and dodging crowds and coppers on the crowded pier temporarily change the tone from thriller to tired comedy.
But the spy story gains pace again when Thomas winds up in the custody of smooth Capt. Drey (James D’Arcy) and dogged Corp. Willis (co-writer Celyn Jones). New reveals, reversals of fortune and another escape for Thomas, this time aided by cheerful bus driver Charlie (a patriotic working-man-with-a heart-of-gold cameo from the great Jim Broadbent that contrasts with the nameless aristocrats in the Nazi-sympathizing, Anglo-German Fellowship), lead to an underwhelming climax. “Good job, especially from a journeyman teacher,” praises Rocoll. What? No matter, after all, it’s a journeyman sort of film.
Multi-hyphenate Izzard, a real-life scion of Bexhill-on-Sea, became obsessed with Augusta-Victoria-College after seeing its badge, a lion rampant with a Union Jack in the left corner and a Swastika in the right, at the local history museum. But unfortunately, the school’s actual history remains more fascinating than the narrative written by Izzard, Celyn and Goddard.
Nevertheless, the script has some memorably peculiar and particularly chilling pedagogical moments. The former involves Thomas teaching the girls complicated tongue twisters and leading them in rousing choruses of “It’s a Long Way to Tiperarry.” Meanwhile, the latter revolves around Ilse’s insidious comparisons between similar types that moves from bees and wasps to alligators and crocodiles to Gentiles and Jews.
Judging by what’s on screen, most of the film’s budget seems to have been spent on the colorful period costumes designed by Lucinda Wright. The girls might not get to say much, but they model numerous changes of fashion from bathing costumes to sporting gear to powder blue uniforms to evening finery.
The natural surroundings, with the coast of Wales standing in for Bexhill-on-Sea, come off the best in Chris Seager’s TV-like lensing. Marc Streitenfeld’s by-the-numbers thriller score does a lot of heavy lifting.
For the record, the title comes from the code words Thomas uses with his superiors at Whitehall to verify his identity and signal an emergency.