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: ‘Dolittle,’ starring Robert Downey Jr.

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Robert Downey Jr.  and parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Dolittle”

Directed by Stephen Gaghan

Culture Representation: Set primarily in the United Kingdom, this dramatic adventure movie’s live-action characters are nearly all white; the voice actors portraying the animated animals are a racially mixed cast; and the social classes range from working-class to royalty.

Culture Clash: A reclusive doctor with the special power to talk to animals reluctantly goes on a journey to find a rare medical cure, and faces obstacles that include more than one villain.

Culture Audience: “Dolittle” will appeal primarily to fans of children-oriented entertainment who don’t mind if the visuals are much better than the storytelling.

Dab-Dab the duck (voiced by Octavia Spencer), polar bear Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), Dr. John Dolittle (played by Robert Downey Jr.), ostrich Plimpton (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani), Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett) and gorilla Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek) in “Dolittle” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

It’s not really a good sign when a major-studio film headlined by an A-list movie star is released in January, the month that’s a notorious dumping ground for bad movies. Universal Pictures must have known that “Dolittle” was going to be a dud, even with star Robert Downey Jr. coming off his major hot streak in the blockbuster superhero “Avengers” and “Iron Man” movies. (“Avengers: Endgame,” Downey’s 2019 movie that was released before “Dolittle,” now holds the record as the world’s biggest box-office movie hit of all time, ending the 10-year reign at the top held by “Avatar.”) “Dolittle” isn’t a terrible film. It’s just a terribly generic film in an era when we’ve been bombarded with kids-oriented movies that have talking animals.

By making “Dolittle” an action-adventure film, “Dolittle” director Stephen Gaghan, who wrote the screenplay with Dan Gregor and Doug Mand, tried to do something different from previous “Dolittle” movies. The original 1967 “Dr. Dolittle” film, starring Rex Harrison and a cast of other Brits, was a musical adapted from Hugh Lofting’s “Dr. Dolittle” book series. The three “Dr. Dolittle” movies from 1998, 2000 and 2006 were slapstick American comedies—the first two starred Eddie Murphy as the title character, and a third film was an ill-conceived flop starring Kyla Pratt, who played Dolittle’s daughter in the first two Murphy-starring films.

Gaghan’s “Dolittle” goes back to the original United Kingdom location, during the mid-1800s era of a young Queen Victoria (played by Jessie Buckley), who has come down with a mysterious illness. During the film’s animated opening sequence, viewers see that veterinarian John Dolittle once led a happy life taking care of animals with his beloved wife Lily (played by Kasia Smutniak), who died tragically.

Fast forward seven years later, and Dr. Dolittle has become a cranky hermit who has neglected his hygiene (he’s so unkempt that a mouse has been living in his beard), as he lives with his animals on his estate that’s essentially an animal sanctuary. The filmmakers have made Dolittle a Welshman, so it might take a while for some viewers to getting used to hearing Downey speak in a Welsh accent that sounds a little too pretentious for a movie where most of his co-stars are animated talking animals. This is a kids’ movie, not Shakespeare.

Tommy Stubbins (played by Harry Collett), a boy from the small village of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh, is an orphaned misfit who lives with his aunt and uncle. Tommy loves animals, and is therefore uncomfortable when he’s forced to go hunting with his uncle. When Tommy accidentally shoots a squirrel while hunting, he decides to take the injured animal to the mysterious Dr. Dolittle, even though the doctor has a reputation for being a curmudgeon. Instead of being afraid of Dolittle’s menagerie of wild animals, Tommy is fascinated and finds out that he has a knack for communicating with animals too. Affected by Tommy’s presence, Dolittle cleans himself up, as he notices that Tommy sees him as a role model and possible mentor.

It isn’t long before Dolittle gets another visitor: Queen Victoria’s attendant Lady Rose (played Carmel Laniado), who arrives with orders to bring Dolittle to Buckingham Palace to give medical aid to the queen. Dolittle has a big incentive to save the queen’s life, because his property has been loaned to him by the queen, and if she dies, he will lose the property.

While at the palace, Dolittle has an awkward reunion with a former school rival: royal physician Dr. Blair Müdfly (played by Michael Sheen), who is jealous of Dolittle’s talent and acclaim. Müdfly is such an over-the-top villain that he practically twirls his moustache and gnashes his teeth. And there’s another antagonist in the story: the ambitious Lord Thomas Badgley (played by Jim Broadbent), who will inherit the throne if Queen Victoria dies. (At this point in her life, Victoria is not married and has no children.)

Dolittle determines that the best cure for the queen’s life-threatening illness is fruit from the Eden Tree on Eden Tree Island, because this fruit is said to have magical powers. (How biblical.) Tommy has essentially decided that he doesn’t really want to go home, so he tags along on Dolittle’s voyage, with Dolittle’s numerous animals in tow as they set sail on a ship called the Water Lily.

Now, about the animals. The problem with “Dolittle” is that there are too many of them in this film. If you’re someone with a short attention span, good luck trying to keep track of all the talking animals. The “Madagascar” movies (another animated series with a variety of wild animals that talk) worked so well because the animals were in a relatively small group and their personalities were so distinct. In “Dolittle,” the personalities of most of the animals tend to blend together in a crowded mush, with the notable exception of the parrot Polynesia (voiced by Emma Thompson), a dutifully efficient assistant/caretaker with a whip-smart attitude. Polynesia holds a special place in Dolittle’s heart because the parrot used to be owned by Dolittle’s late wife Lily.

The other animals in this mixed-bag menagerie are Chee-Chee (voiced by Rami Malek), an insecure gorilla; Dab-Dab (voiced by Octavia Spencer), a maternal, scatterbrained American Pekin duck; Plimpton, a nervous osctrich (voiced by Kumail Nanjiani); Yoshi (voiced by John Cena), a polar bear who hates the cold, loves adventure, and often bickers with Plimpton; Betsy (voiced by Selena Gomez), a kind giraffe; Kevin (voiced by Crag Robinson), the injured squirrel that was accidentally shot by Tommy and who has a cheeky sense of humor; Tutu (voiced by Marion Cotillard), a fearless fox with leadership qualities; and Mini (voiced by Nick A. Fisher), a baby sugar glider that’s constantly curious.

Meanwhile, other talking animals include brainy dog Jip (voiced by Tom Holland), a long-haired Lurcher tasked with guarding the queen; Humphrey (voiced by Tim Treloar), a whale that helps navigate the Water Lily; James (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), a nervous dragonfly; Barry (voiced by Ralph Fiennes), a Bengal tiger with mommy issues and a grudge against Dolittle; Don Carpenterino (voiced by David Sheinkopf), the leader of an ant colony; Army Ant (voiced by Matthew Wolfe), Don’s sidekick; and Dragon (voiced by Frances de la Tour), guardian of the Eden Tree.

As for other human characters, there’s also Pirate King Rassouli (played by Antonio Banderas), who lives on Monteverde Island, one of the stops along the way to Eden Tree Island. Banderas hams it up as yet another adversary to Dolittle and his crew. Large ensembles can work for well-written, live-action films geared to adults. But when it’s a mostly animated film geared to kids, the movie can come across as too cluttered for its own good.

“Dolittle” certainly has an impressive cast of acting talent. It’s too bad that so many of the characters are bland. Furthermore, Chee-Chee (the gorilla that’s a visual standout) is a missed opportunity, since the character was miscast for its voice. Malek sounds more like the minature “Frozen” snowman Olaf than a massive gorilla. The Chee-Chee character needed an actor with a deeper voice to better reflect the gorilla’s intimidating physical presence. Former wrestling champ Cena, who’s the voice of Yoshi the polar bear, would have been better in the role of Chee-Chee.

Although the characters in this movie are very underdeveloped, the compelling visual effects (overseen by visual effects supervisors Nicolas Aithadi and John Dykstra) are the most entertaining aspect of the film. Young children who are dazzled by visuals should enjoy “Dolittle” for the movie’s colorful ambiance, even if they won’t remember most of the movie’s animal characters weeks after seeing this film. (Don’t expect there to be a high demand for “Dolittle” toys.) More mature viewers might get easily bored with this movie, because it wallows in a lot of mediocrity that wastes this talented cast.

Simply put: “Dolittle” is not the kind of movie that people looking for high-quality entertainment will rush to see multiple times while it’s in theaters. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Universal Pictures released “Dolittle” in U.S. cinemas on January 17, 2020.