Greetings again from the darkness. I never cease to be amazed at the number of stories connected to WWII that translate so well to cinema. This one comes from director Andy Goddard (known mostly for his TV work) and his co-writers Eddie Izzard and Celyn Jones, and takes place in 1939 England, just prior to Germany invading Poland to start the war. The story was inspired by true events.
Augusta-Victoria College for Girls was located in Bexhill-On-Sea, and served as a finishing school for the daughters of the German elite from 1932 through 1939. We open as the school’s English teacher, Mr. Wheatley (Nigel Lindsay), frantically flees when he realizes his undercover mission has been discovered. An artistically filmed sequence on the boardwalk ends with Wheatley missing and his bowler floating off on the horizon. We don’t know yet what he uncovered, but Thomas Miller (co-writer Eddie Izzard) is quickly hired as the new teacher by Headmistress Miss Rocholl (Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench).
Teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri) puts the girls through their robotic lessons and ensures they listen to Nazi propaganda on the radio. Of course, as in most spy thrillers, no one is as they seem – or at least most aren’t. Most of the girls seem indistinguishable from each other, save for dark-haired and bespectacled Gretel (Tijan Marei), who is a true outcast. The girls are referred to as the “Hitler League of German Girls” and are being educated and groomed for the planned new socialist nation.
It doesn’t take Miller long to uncover a plan, and almost immediately, he’s wrongly accused of murder – sending him on the run. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Miller is part of British Intelligence, and in the role, Izzard delivers a more restrained performance than what we are accustomed to (see OCEAN’S TWELVE and OCEAN’S THIRTEEN … and it’s very effective. James D’Arcy as Captain Drey enters about halfway through, as does his partner Corporal Willis (played by co-writer Celyn Jones). This gives us a bit of cat and mouse between Drey and Miller, and they are joined in the fun by Charlie the bus driver, played by the always interesting Jim Broadbent.
The plan to evacuate the girls before the war seems a bit overly complicated, but then my experience planning such war time strategy is admittedly non-existent. Still, the lead characters and the setting make this intriguing enough, and cinematographer Chris Seager certainly has some fun with camera angles. For those hooked on all things related to WWII, it’s likely a story you haven’t heard much about.
From IFC Films, SIX MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT opens March 26, 2021