Directed by Andy Goddard | Written by Goddard, Eddie Izzard, and Celyn Jones | 99 min | On Demand
Fans of Eddie Izzard, Judi Dench, or relentlessly middlebrow wartime dramas will likely find this picture hard to resist, but I’d wager they’ll also find it a bit of a disappointment. Despite a lot of compelling elements — an intriguing real life scenario, terrific actors — there’s not much that excites.
It’s August 1939 in picturesque Bexhill-on-Sea, South England, and war is literally days away. Twenty students attend an exclusive girls school, Augusta Victoria College, all the daughters or goddaughters of the Nazi High Command, sent to this remote corner of Britain for finishing school.
They’re a mostly interchangeable gaggle of aryan mean girls, with the exception of the “ugly duckling,” Gretel ( Tijan Marei), who the rest hate. They’re taught by the Teutonic, officious Ilse Keller (Carla Juri) and overseen by brittle British headmistress Miss Rocholl (Dench).
A former teacher meets an unpleasant end, so a tweedy new fellow applies for the job, Thomas Miller (Izzard), a Brit whose father was German. It turns out Miller is a spy, there to suss out a key piece of strategic information and the girls themselves, who inevitably will be pawns in the forthcoming war.
On the surface, intrigue bubbles. We get the sometimes conflicting, sometimes dovetailing values of the resurgent Germany and Imperial Britain meeting in the classroom, with Miss Rocholl swept up in the spirit of the Hitler youth. There’s Izzard as a likeable educator with an uncomfortable secret, who for about 10 seconds finds a modicum chemistry with both Miss Keller and Gretel.
Cue the spy games, which are handled so clumsily it makes you wish the thriller elements had been played as a spoof, especially given Izzard is such a gifted comic. Too much of the second act is swallowed up by suspense-free scenes of Miller, now accused of murder, running from the local bobbies. When James D’Arcy shows up as a detective (co-writer Jones his right-hand man) I was reminded how much more fun he was in another period role on Agent Carter. Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent also appears in thankless support as a bus driver.
The nighttime denouement on a sandy outcrop over the ocean, purple flares glowing to signal a German plane, offers a burst of visual style, but the flourish arrives a little to late to save this otherwise so-so effort.