Review: ‘Six Minutes to Midnight,’ starring Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench

April 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench in “Six Minutes to Midnight” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Six Minutes to Midnight”

Directed by Andy Goddard

Culture Representation: Taking place in England in 1939, the spy drama “Six Minutes to Midnight” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and various government officials.

Culture Clash: On the brink of World War II, a German British spy poses as an English teacher at a boarding school in England for daughters of powerful German Nazis.

Culture Audience: “Six Minutes to Midnight” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories about spies who target Nazis, but the movie ineptly bungles what are supposed to be the most suspenseful parts of the story.

Carla Juri and Judi Dench in “Six Minutes to Midnight” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench star in a movie about a spy who infiltrates a boarding school for Nazi teenage girls. What could possibly go wrong? In the case of the woefully misguided “Six Minutes to Midnight”—everything. The story’s “mystery villain” is revealed about halfway through the film, and the rest of the story consists of far-fetched chase scenes and shootouts.

The only realistic thing about “Six Minutes to Midnight” is that the story was inspired by the real-life Augusta-Victoria College, a prestigious independent boarding school for mostly teenage girls in the coastal town of Bexhill-on-Seas, England, which is Izzard’s hometown. Augusta-Victoria College existed from 1932 to 1939, and it enrolled German female students ranging in ages from 16 to 21. It was a school intended to foster good will between British and German cultures. The school’s students weren’t just any students though: They were the daughters of high-ranking Nazis.

According to the “Six Minutes to Midnight” production notes, Izzard was so intrigued by the history of Augusta-Victoria College, it inspired Izzard to want to do a movie about it. Andrew Goddard directed “Six Minutes to Midnight” from a screenplay that he wrote with Izzard and Celyn Jones. Izzard is also one of the producers of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” which comes across as a bit of a vanity project where Izzard wants to be a spy character who’s an action star, without the suave flair and dazzling stunts of James Bond.

Fair enough, but it’s unfortunate that Izzard was a major creator for this clumsily constructed movie. “Six Minutes to Midnight” also shamefully glosses over the horrors of Nazi evil and is instead more concerned with whether or not Augusta-Victoria College’s lonely spinster headmistress will be separated from her students, as war appears inevitable between Great Britain and Nazi Germany. By the end of the movie, viewers will learn almost next to nothing about Izzard’s Thomas Miller character, except that he sure likes to use the beach a lot as a hiding place.

“Six Minutes to Midnight,” which takes place over a period of less than a month, begins on August 15, 1939, in Bexhill-on-Sea. A middle-aged man who goes by the name of Wheatley (played by Nigel Lindsay) is in a classroom, as he frantically looks for something that’s in a hidden space behind one of the room’s book shelves. He takes out a small box and is visibly upset when he finds out that what he’s looking for isn’t there.

Viewers find out a short time later that this classroom is at Augusta-Victoria College, which is sprawled out on a large property near the beach. As a distraught Wheatley quickly rides off on a bicycle, he is being watched through an upper-room window by the school’s headmistress/principal Miss Rocholl (played by Dench), who’s got that hard-nosed “Don’t try to mess with me” look that Dench has for most of the characters she tends to play. Wheatley goes to a phone booth, where he makes a panicky phone call to an unidentified man.

“It’s missing!” Wheatley shouts. “Don’t you understand? They’ve taken it!” The man on the other line can be heard saying something about duty. Wheatley responds, “They know they’re being watched! I can’t go back!”

So now that it’s been established that Wheatley has been caught spying on Augusta-Victoria College, it’s kind of a no-brainer to figure out who sent him there. The person on the other line was guilt-tripping Wheatley about “duty.” And that just screams “service to the government.”

The fact that Wheatley is a government spy isn’t the mystery. The mystery is what happened to Wheatley, who is shown sitting at a table on a pier’s wooden deck after making his upsetting phone call. And then, the next thing you know, all that’s seen is that Wheatley is missing from the deck and his bowler hat is flying off in the wind. Did he disappear? Is he dead? Did he give his two weeks’ notice? Does anyone care?

Izzard’s Thomas Miller character comes into the picture soon afterward, when he interviews at Augusta-Victoria College, as a replacement for Wheatley. The school found Wheatley and Thomas through the same employment agency. Thomas is greeted in a friendly and upbeat manner by schoolteacher Ilse Keller (played by Carla Juri), who is Miss Rocholl’s trusted right-hand person.

What’s somewhat laughable about this badly made film is that even though there are only 20 students currently at this school, Ilse and Miss Rocholl are the only faculty members seen at Augusta-Victoria College. Where are the other employees? There isn’t even a janitor or caretaker in sight for this sizeable property.

Augusta-Victoria College is portrayed in the movie as a high-level finishing school for girls (they practice things such as poise and balance by walking with books on their heads), but there no servants shown on the premises of this boarding school. After all, how can these Hitler youth practice a bigoted Nazi sense of superiority without “lowly” staffers to boss around? The main indication that the students are in a cult-like environment is when Ilse frequently takes the students to the nearby beach, where the students stand in military-like formations and move when she commands them to, like good little Stepford Nazis.

Thomas predictably gets hired at the school, so he’s technically the third faculty member shown in the movie. However, he doesn’t become a permanent staffer, because Miss Rocholl tells Thomas when she hires him that she wants to test him out on a trial basis first. In other words, he’s a temporary employee. This job interview takes place on August 21, 1939, which is six days after Wheatley has disappeared. By the time that the end of the story happens on September 3, 1939, Thomas will be long gone from his employment at Augusta-Victoria College.

In his job interview with Miss Rocholl, she is stern and judgmental. She asks Thomas about his personal life and finds out that he’s a bachelor with no children . When she asks him, “What sort of Englishman would accept a post teaching Herr Hitler’s legal German girls?” Thomas tells her that his father is German. And it’s convenient that he’s bilingual because Thomas has been hired as the school’s English teacher.

Miss Rocholl admits to Thomas that the school needed to hire someone on short notice because Thomas’ predecessor turned out to be “unreliable.” She adds, “My girls need order. Next week, we present them to the Anglo-German fellowship.” Thomas doesn’t bother to ask her what happened to his predecessor, because he already knows that Wheatley has disappeared. Thomas and the rest of the school will eventually find out what happened to Wheatley.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has some filler and predictable scenes that always seem to be in movies where one of the main locations is a school for teenagers. There’s the stereotypical “mean girl”/queen bee student, whose name is Astrid (played Maria Dragus). And there’s the socially awkward outcast student, whose name is Gretel (played by Tijan Marei). The rest of the students are written with indistinguishable personalities. And most of the students do not have any speaking lines in the movie.

Astrid and Gretel are written as such extreme opposites that their characters are almost caricatures. Astrid is the outgoing popular student who excels in athletics and academics. Gretel is the shy misfit who’s smart but she doesn’t know how to swim, which is the main physical sport that the students have at the school. Gretel often spends time by herself while the other students participate in athletic and social activities.

Astrid is the type of person who will smile in someone’s face and then make insulting remarks behind that person’s back. That’s what she does to Thomas on his first day on the job at Augusta-Victoria College. Astrid is the first student to welcome him in the class, but later on, Thomas overhears Astrid telling another student with a smirk that Thomas wouldn’t be considered “man enough” for the Fuhrer, in other words, Adolf Hitler.

Meanwhile, Thomas establishes a bit of a rapport with bashful and sensitive Gretel, because he can relate to feeling like an outsider in this stuffy and elitist environment. He notices that Gretel is frequently shunned by her classmates, so he occasionally gives her little pep talks. But Thomas’ interactions with the students are not shown very much because he’s got an ulterior motive for being at this school. It isn’t long before Thomas is snooping around because he was sent to Augusta-Victoria College to find out what happened to Wheatley.

The movie makes subtle and not-so-subtle references to Augusta-Victoria College being a school that taught Nazi propaganda. Thomas finds an Augusta-Victoria College school crest embroidered on a patch, which has a lion flanked by the United Kingdom flag on one side and a Nazi swastika on the other. (This movie uses the real-life Augusta-Victoria College crest.)

One day, Thomas walks by a classroom and sees Miss Rocholl and the students listening to a Hitler speech on the radio. To his surprise, Miss Rocholl joins the students in a Nazi salute while they chant “Sieg Heil!” At that moment, Miss Rocholl and Thomas make eye contact, and she can sense his disgust.

Later, in a private meeting between Miss Rocholl and Thomas, she tries to justify her apparent allegiance to the Nazis. Miss Rocholl has this to say about joining in on the “Sieg Heil” chant: “It means ‘Hail Victory.’ That’s all … Why should we criticize a country that strives to be great?”

Miss Rocholl then tries to appeal to Thomas’ empathetic side by telling him: “These girls are my life. They give me hope. And that’s why I join in when they say, ‘Hail Victory.'” In another part of the story, Miss Rocholl also says to Thomas that she wants to keep the girls as sheltered as possible from the outside world. Can you say “Nazi brainwashing school?”

And if it isn’t made clear enough that Augusta-Victoria College is a training ground for Hitler’s Nazi youth, there’s another scene where Thomas (who lurks quite a bit in the school hallways) walks by a classroom and sees Ilse pivoting a discussion with the students into an anti-Semitic lecture. Ilse starts off talking about how it’s hard to tell from appearances if someone is good or evil. Then she asks the students for examples of how to spot the differences between animals of the same species. And then she turns it into a discussion about how to find out the differences between Jews and Gentiles. The movie stops short of showing her going into details about how to identify Jewish people.

And what about Thomas’ spy mission? There are the predictable scenes of him hiding in places to eavesdrop on conversations. And don’t forget the formulaic scene of Thomas rifling through desk drawers and secretly photographing certain documents with a miniature camera that’s the same size as a modern-day flash drive.

The title of “Six Minutes to Midnight” comes from Thomas using the code 1154 (as in, 11:54 p.m.) to identify himself when he calls into spy headquarters. Technically, if he were using government time codes to signify “six minutes to midnight.” he should have used the digits 2354. But that’s the least of this movie’s problems with logic.

There’s also a fairly ludicrous scene of Thomas having a tension-filled meeting with his supervisor Colonel Smith (played David Schofield) at, of all places, a live comedy show. Let’s see: You’re an undercover spy who’s supposed to be having a secret conversation with your boss about a clandestine mission. And you think the best place to have this confidential conversation is in the audience of a show where you have to raise your voice in order to be heard because someone’s performing on stage while you’re talking. And you’re surrounded by people who could hear what you’re talking about in a theater that’s fairly dark, so you don’t really know who could be eavesdropping. Somewhere, James Bond is laughing at this spy sloppiness.

The very talented Jim Broadbent is in the cast of “Six Minutes to Midnight,” but he’s barely in the movie. His scenes last for less than 10 minutes, thereby squandering Broadbent’s talent. It’s another reason why “Six Minutes to Midnight” is foolish and annoying. Broadbent portrays a friendly man named Charlie, the owner of a private bus service called Charlie Bus Hire. It’s a small business that seems to have only one bus, and Charlie is the driver.

Thomas and Charlie cross paths a few times in the movie when Thomas needs a bus ride to wherever he needs to go. The government didn’t provide a car for Thomas while he was undercover for this assignment, presumably to make his teacher impersonation more believable. A low-paid teacher wasn’t supposed to be able to afford a car in those days.

Charlie is the type of small role that should have gone to a lesser renowned actor. An actor of Broadbent’s caliber should have been showcased more in this movie. It’s disappointing to see Broadbent, who is capable of better and more substantial work, in such a poorly written role that reduces him to some wisecracking jokes that don’t land well at all.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” really falls off the rails when Thomas goes on the run after being accused of a murder he didn’t commit. One of the characters ends up getting shot in front of Thomas one rainy night. Viewers get to see who the shooter is, but Thomas doesn’t see the killer because it was raining so hard and he was in a car when it happened.

After the murder, the shooter ran away and dropped the gun, with the intent to frame Thomas for the murder. And sure enough, Thomas ran out of the car and picked up the gun, right at the same moment that a police officer arrived to see Thomas with blood on his clothes and holding the murder weapon. What a coincidence.

James D’Arcy has the role of Captain Drey, the law enforcement officer who’s in charge of investigating the murder. Captain Drey doesn’t believe Thomas’ proclamations of innocence. Thomas and Captain Drey have the expected personality clashes. And you can easily predict how this murder is going to affect Thomas’ ability to stay undercover as a spy.

Izzard seems to be trying earnestly to be an action hero, but it’s just not believable in the context of how ridiculously many of the scenes are staged. The shootout scenes lack credibility because “Six Minutes to Midnight” is one of those movies where people spend more time talking while they’re aiming their guns than actually shooting their targets. And get used to aerial shots of Izzard running away on a beach, because there’s plenty of that repetition in the movie.

As for Dench and Juri, they’ve played the same types of characters in other movies before: Dench as the no-nonsense taskmaster, Juri as the helpful assistant/sidekick. The acting from the cast members isn’t terrible, but there’s nothing extraordinary or noteworthy about it either. The character of Thomas is very hollow and uninteresting. It’s kind of mind-boggling that Izzard (one of the screenplay co-writers) couldn’t come up with a better character for this starring role.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” director/co-writer Goddard puts some effort into making the scenes try to look artistic. The big showdown at the end of the movie takes place on a beach at night. Some flare guns are used in this scene, to visually stunning results. But those are just superficial effects. The actual confrontation with weapons in this scene ends up being very dull and anti-climactic.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has an almost flippant and dismissive attitude about the disturbing genocide and other mayhem caused by Nazis. The movie only wants to address the Nazis’ destruction in vague, abstract terms. The characters in the movie don’t really talk about why the United Kingdom is headed toward war with Nazi Germany. Instead, it becomes all about whether or not Thomas can prove his innocence in the murder case and what’s going to happen to the Augusta-Victoria College students.

This movie didn’t have to be a history lesson, but it’s very off-putting that all these characters in “Six Minutes to Midnight” who work for the British government won’t even acknowledge the suffering of the people who are the targets of Nazi hate. It might have been the filmmakers’ way of showing how people were in denial or willing to enable Nazi atrocities. But it’s a weak excuse when most of the main characters in the story are not ignorant citizens and they know exactly why Great Britain is going to war with Nazi Germany.

Simply put: “Six Minutes to Midnight” gives a much higher priority in trying to make viewers care about the comfort and well-being of Nazi youth and their British teachers than it does in trying to make viewers care about the people whose lives were destroyed by Nazis. It’s a completely tone-deaf movie that couldn’t even deliver a suspenseful mystery story. And in the end, “Six Minutes to Midnight” is a time-wasting film where the main characters don’t seem to have any emotional growth because they’re all so emotionally barren from the start.

Review: ‘Amulet,’ starring Alec Secareanu, Carla Juri and Imelda Staunton

July 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alec Secareanu and Carla Juri in “Amulet” (Photo by Rob Baker Ashton/Magnet Releasing)

“Amulet” 

Directed by Romola Garai

Culture Representation: Taking place in England and unnamed European countries in unspecified modern time periods, the horror film “Amulet” has an almost all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A former soldier-turned-Ph.D. philosophy student takes a job in London as a live-in handyman in a creepy house that’s occupied by a young woman and her mysterious mother, who lives as a recluse in the house’s attic.

Culture Audience: “Amulet” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that excel in creating a foreboding atmosphere, but makes viewers watch a lot of extremely slow-paced scenes to get to the movie’s underlying messages and plot twists.

Imelda Staunton in “Amulet” (Photo by Rob Baker Ashton/Magnet Releasing)

The horror film “Amulet” (written and directed by Romola Garai) makes a bold effort to flip a lot of tropes and shatter a lot of stereotypes that are seen all too often in psychological thrillers. But in doing so, the movie’s execution falls short of being completely engaging, since it’s bogged down by extremely slow pacing. And making matters worse, several parts of the movie have dialogue and reactions that are so simple-minded, it makes you question the intelligence of the Ph. D. student who’s one of the movie’s main characters.

People who hate movies that have flashbacks that might be confusing, be warned: “Amulet” is full of these types of flashbacks. The gist of the story is that there’s a former war soldier from an unnamed continental European country who has ended up in a haunted house in London. The movie never states what war he was in, but he keeps having nightmare flashbacks to that war, where he worked for a time as a lone soldier manning a checkpoint booth on a very deserted road in a wooded area.

The former soldier’s name is Tomaz (played by Alec Secareanu), and somehow he’s ended up in England, where he’s enrolled in a doctorate program for philosophy. Tomaz (who has a beard in the present day) keeps having nightmares about his time as a soldier, when he didn’t have a beard. (It’s one of the ways that the movie distinguishes between the past and the present.)

Tomaz’s nightmares are shown as flashbacks in non-chronological order, so viewers have to piece together the puzzle of this story. It might be a challenge for viewers who have short attention spans or who are watching this often-dull movie with other distractions.

The most important things to know about the flashbacks are that while Tomaz was a soldier, he found an amulet buried in the woods, and he got to know a woman in distress whom he met when she ran to the checkpoint and collapsed in front of him. The checkpoint is located in the same wooded area where Tomaz found the amulet.

The woman’s name is Miriam (played by Angeliki Papoulia), and when Tomaz first saw her running toward the checkpoint, he yelled at her to stop and that if she didn’t stop, he was going to shoot. Just as Tomaz raised his gun to shoot her, she collapsed in front of him. It’s shown in flashbacks that after Miriam regained consciousness with Tomaz’s help, they began having conversations and he became her protector, since she apparently needed food and shelter.

Flash forward to the present day. While Tomaz has been working on his dissertation in London, he’s ended up living with some homeless people in an abandoned church. A fire breaks out at the church, so the homeless people scatter.

The next thing you know, a bloodied Tomaz is being treated at a hospital. A nurse asks him, “Who tied you up?” He replies, “Friends. It was a joke.” Tomaz then mentions that he had a bag with him but it’s now missing.

The nurse tells him that Tomaz needs to speak to the orderly, who has the bag and a message for him. While on his way to retrieve his bag, Tomas passes by a room where he sees a pregnant woman sitting on a floor, and she’s crying out in pain because she’s in labor. The only purpose of this deliberately confusing scene is to set the tone for themes of some very female-centric pain that’s shown later in the story.

Why is Tomaz homeless? The movie might answer that question, but in the meantime, Tomaz finds a new place to live when a nun from the local diocese, who knows that Tomaz was one of the squatters in the burned church, tells him about a house that needs a live-in handyman.

The nun’s name is Sister Claire (played by Imelda Staunton), and she tells Tomaz that the people in the house are offering free room and board in exchange for him doing repairs and renovations. And because this is a horror movie, you can bet that some very bad things are going to happen in this house.

The cottage-styled house looks quaint and charming on the outside, but on the inside there’s a lot of emotional rot and turmoil. There are two people who live in the house: Magda (played by Carla Juri), a woman in her 20s and her unnamed mother (played by Anah Ruddin), who lives as an ailing recluse upstairs in the attic. The mother can often be heard moaning in pain, and Tomaz tries to avoid being in contact with her as much as possible.

As Tomaz gets to know Magda, he begins to see that she is a very naïve, sheltered and passive woman. She says she hasn’t traveled outside of the city, nor does she show an interest in traveling or going outside her comfort zone. And there are signs that she doesn’t have much experience with romance or dating.

But what disturbs Tomaz the most is that Magda’s mother appears to be physically abusing Magda. (He sees Magda secretly covering her bruises and possible bite marks with bandages.) And Tomaz is also starting to get creeped out by strange things that are happening in the house.

He finds a mysterious white bat-like creature in the bathroom toilet, which is filled with a disgusting dark liquid. Tomaz kills the creature by stomping on it. Magda is there too, but she oddly doesn’t seem as frightened by this bat-like creature in the same way as Tomaz.

And when Tomaz does some ceiling repairs, he sees (or is it hallucinates?) that the ceiling has engravings that look a lot like the engravings on the amulet he found in the woods. It startles him so much that falls off a ladder while he’s looking at the ceiling. Tomaz believes that the engravings are to ward off evil spirits.

Magda doesn’t see a lot of the same things in the house that Tomaz does, so he begins to wonder if he’s going crazy. Tomaz has also seen what Magda’s mother looks like, and she’s decrepit-looking old woman who would be a stereotypical example of what a witch is supposed to look like. Is it any wonder that Tomaz thinks that maybe Magda’s mother is behind some of the eerie things that he’s experiencing in the house?

Tomaz tells his suspicions to Sister Claire and says that he thinks Magda’s mother doesn’t want him in the house. The nun replies: “What we want isn’t always what we need.” At least once during the story, Tomaz threatens to quit.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Tomaz and Magda starts to become more emotionally intimate. It’s obvious that she wants something sexual to happen between them. However, Tomaz is very resistant and tries to let Magda down easy without insulting her. (After all, she’s technically one of his bosses.)

Unfortunately, the Magda character is written in such a simple-minded way, that the conversations she has with Tomaz are excruciating to watch. Magda says things like this to Tomaz about his soldier past: “Did you kill people? It’s a sin to waste your life.” And when the emotionally stunted Magda starts to show a romantic interest in Tomaz, it’s like watching an adolescent girl trying to be sexually attractive to a grown man. Very cringeworthy.

Sister Claire is an interesting character (and Staunton is by far the best actor in this cast), but she isn’t in the movie enough to bring more energy to this often-listless story. Because “Amulet” is told from Tomaz’s perspective, he spends most of the movie being confused about what’s going on in the house while dealing with his nightmare flashbacks that appear to seep into his current life. Therefore, viewers have to figure out what might be “real” and what might be a “delusion.”

“Amulet” is the first feature film for Garai as a writer/director. She is also known as an actress who’s appeared in British TV series such as “The Hour” and the 2009 miniseries adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” which starred Garai in the title role. Most of the actors in “Amulet” are well-cast in this movie, except for Juri, who gives a very annoying performance.

Although the production design, cinematography, visual effects and cinematography suit this horror film very well, the weak links are the movie’s screenplay, editing and overall direction. The characters often speak with long pauses, which might work for a play on stage. But this is a horror movie, and lethargic dialogue and sluggish pacing are antidotes to the type of suspense that’s crucial for any good horror flick.

“Amulet” certainly deserves a lot of credit for having some twist-filled elements that add intrigue to the story. It’s too bad that these plot twists arrive so late in the film, that a lot of bored viewers might stop watching the movie before getting to the film’s shock-intended conclusion.

Magnet Releasing released “Amulet” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on July 24, 2020.