British WWII historical drama tips its bowler to Hitchcock

Judi Dench as Miss Rocholl in Andy Goddard’s “Six Minutes to Midnight.” Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

BY CATE MARQUIS, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard and Jim Broadbent headline “Six Minutes to Midnight,” a Hitchcock-styled British historical thriller set in the summer of 1939 at a finishing school for German girls on the southeastern coast of England as World War II looms.

The film was a pet project of Izzard’s for many years, the idea sparked from his growing up in the area and visiting a Bexhill-on-Sea museum. There, he saw an insignia patch for the Augusta-Victoria College, which features a small swastika alongside a British flag. The school, which existed from 1932 to 1939, was one of many international schools in the area prior to WWII, but this one had a sinister mission: to teach German girls, many of whom were daughters of the Nazi elite, about English language and culture as part of a plan to spread the Nazis’  dark ideology to Britain.

However, this is a fictional film, written by Izzard, co-star Celyn Jones and director Andy Goddard. It is unclear how much of the story is factual, although it seems likely that British authorities were keeping an eye on the school as tensions rose between the countries prior to the Nazis’ invasion of Poland in 1939.

The St. Louis Jewish Film Festival is hosting an online advance screening of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” which is due to be released in the United States next month. With the purchase of tickets, the film will be available to screen online anytime from Feb. 17 to Feb. 24, but it requires a purchase separate from a film festival pass (see infobox for full details).

ADVERTISEMENT
JCC Summer Membership Ad


In the film, teacher Thomas Miller (Izzard) interviews for a job teaching English at Augusta-Victoria College for girls at Bexhill after the mysterious disappearance of the school’s English teacher. The British headmistress of the German school for girls, Miss Rocholl (Oscar-winner Dame Judi Dench), describes it as a place to promote understanding between British and German people, choosing to focus on that aspect rather than the school’s Nazi sponsorship. Although she is less than impressed with faculty candidate Miller, she needs to quickly find a replacement teacher to maintain the girls’ English language skills and agrees to hire him on a trial basis, based in part on the fact that he is half-German and bilingual.

The school is on summer break, and the only other faculty present is physical education teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri), who drills the girls and takes them on outings to the beach to swim. On one such outing, they make a shocking discovery that sparks tensions around the school, just as tensions are rising internationally as war approaches.

With everyone on edge, a tale of secrets and espionage begins.

Izzard’s Miller is very much a Hitchcockian character, a man with secrets who is falsely accused of a crime and must go on the run to avoid the authorities and complete his mission. He couldn’t have a better supporting cast, with Dench as the well-meaning but deluded headmistress and Broadbent adding some comic relief as a colorful, outgoing bus driver who ends up playing a critical role.

Many characters are not who they seem, and secrets, betrayals, twists and chases abound. The tale is set in the scenic British countryside, in a stately home that houses the school and featuring the area’s historic sites, rolling hills and windswept coast. 

The dramatic location and period details are just right, including that school crest that so strikes Miller when he first sees it, adding to the film’s authentic feel and brooding mood. 

Unsurprisingly, the acting is excellent, particularly Dench’s headmistress, whose affection for “her girls” blinds her to what is really going on. As the thriller unfolds, her position becomes more tenuous until she reaches a breaking point.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” offers fine historical spy thriller entertainment, solid performances and a glimpse into a little-known, unsettling bit of British history.