Review: 'Six Minutes to Midnight' has terrific moments but could have been so much more

"Six Minutes to Midnight" has all the makings of a crackerjack spy thriller.

It comes as a shock seeing Dame Judi Dench thrust her right arm outward and shout “Sieg Heil” in this fact-based, nerve-jangler taking place during the lead-up to World War II in the summer of 1939 as Hitler gathered his armies to invade Poland. But nothing in “Six Minutes to Midnight,” now in theaters and on demand, is what you expect.

That’s all good, until a cliché pileup slackens the plot’s grip. Dench stars as Miss Rocholl, the stern headmistress of the Augusta-Victoria finishing school for girls on the southeast coast of England. Her commitment to Anglo-German fellowship doesn’t exactly grab you. But wait. The students are all daughters of the German high command. Gotcha now.

The thunderous “Sieg Heil” from the girls to a Hitler radio broadcast certainly raises the hackles of Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard), a newcomer being interviewed by Miss Rocholl for the recently vacated post of English teacher. Soon after, one of the girls — the shy Gretel (Tijan Marei) — finds the body of said teacher washed up on shore, a victim of foul play.

It doesn’t take long to learn that Miller is a British spy and that physical-education teacher Ilse Keller (Carla Juri, overdoing the villainy) is out to stop Miller from preventing the girls’ flight back to Germany before war is declared, leaving them pawns for the Allies to use against their fathers. They have six minutes to midnight before the escape and before Miller can reveal Keller’s list of British spies currently working undercover in Germany.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” has all the makings of a crackerjack spy thriller that the late Alfred Hitchcock could have infused with nonstop suspense. Sadly, director Andy Goddard is no Hitchcock. He lets the tension seep out when we most need it pumping.

Izzard, the gender-fluid comic, writer, gender activist and marathon runner who uses the pronouns she/her, is a fine actor on film (“The Cat’s Meow”), TV (“Hannibal”) and stage (a well deserved Tony nomination for “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg”). But her performance as Miller seems strangely lacking in character detail and development.

This is odd since it was Izzard’s childhood visits to the area of the school that inspired her to write the script, her first, with Goddard and Celyn Jones, who plays a detective in the film. Since the school is real and a fertile background for a film, not to mention the complex personalities of the girls themselves, it’s puzzling why Izzard felt the need to impose a fictional spy plot on its factual history, especially one that degenerates into a formulaic chase, with Oscar winner Jim Broadbent as a harried bus driver, devoid of human emotion.

Don’t get me wrong. “Six Minutes to Midnight” has its taut and terrific moments. The pleasures of a lushly photographed wartime adventure with Dench as its acting core are not to be sneezed at. It's just that the movie that might have been, the one filled with ideas and purpose, could have been so much more.