Running time: 99 minutes. Rated PG-13 (some violence.) In theaters and On Demand.
Today’s bizarre history lesson: A British finishing school once housed the teen daughters of top Nazis.
That WTF? academy was Augusta-Victoria College on the southeast coast of England. A short-lived and one-of-a-kind institution, the school upheld German values, such as they were, in a Tudor mansion on a picturesque UK seaside.
It’s a juicy premise for the movie “Six Minutes to Midnight,” about a British spy who infiltrates Augusta-Victoria in 1939 as an English teacher just 17 days before Winston Churchill declared war with Germany.
The execution is not so scintillating, though. Director Andy Goddard’s film is far too aware of its subject’s peculiarity, and every frame knows full well that something is a bit off.
For a boarding school movie, “Six Minutes” is about as glum as it gets, bordering on a horror vibe. It’s certainly touchy today to depict even the spawn of Nazis having a jolly time — nobody is gonna write a character like Rolfe from “The Sound of Music” anymore — but nonstop darkness leaves the school looking like a coal mine.
The teacher, Mr. Miller, is played by Eddie Izzard. The comic, who doesn’t get to crack any jokes, actually grew up in this lovely town, called Bexhill-on-Sea, and spearheaded the drama’s creation.
Miller starts to grow close to a couple of the girls as well the headmistress, Miss Rocholl (Judi Dench), as a sense of political unease sets in around Britain and Europe.
“What sort of Englishman would accept a post teaching Herr Hitler’s league of German girls?,” she asks him. Teach cleverly replies, “Mein Vater ist Deutscher.” (It means what you think it means.)
We meet Ilse (Carla Juri), an uptight German professor and full-fledged Nazi, and a few Brits who are Hitler sympathizers trying to thwart Miller’s mission. The story is a compelling one.
Still, a more effective thriller would juxtapose the worldwide catastrophe the adults all know is about to be unleashed, and carefree young kids who are unknowingly at the center of it. The happiest we ever see that league of German girls is when they’re yelling the victory salute “Sieg heil!” at the radio. Not quite hopscotch.
It’s always a pleasure to see Izzard in dramatic roles, however, and that aforementioned passion for this forgotten piece of history is evident in Miller’s intense determination. Dench, lately, has been handed schlocky roles unworthy of her prodigious talents (“Artemis Fowl,” “Blithe Spirit”). While her Rocholl isn’t Lady Macbeth, there is a complexity to this quiet woman using her love of her students to distract from the horrors she knows their parents to be committing.
Nobody does it better than Dench … with the right scripts.