A World War II spy thriller set in the English seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea. Eddie Izzard plays a schoolteacher who goes there to take up a post at the Augusta Victoria College, a finishing school for young ladies run by a Miss Docholl, played by Judy Dench.
All the girls there are the daughters of high-ranking Nazis. This much is true. The rest of the story is made up by Izzard, who lived in Bexhill as a child and was fascinated by the history of the College, as who wouldn’t be? It operated from 1932 to 1939. The idea was apparently to prepare these young women to take on the roles of wives and mothers of a ruling Nazi elite in England when the Germans won the war.
Who knew? I certainly didn’t. The disappointing thing is that with such an amazing true foundation, Izzard and his co-creators couldn’t come up with a better movie.
First, some housekeeping: Izzard describes himself as ‘gender-fluid’, and has said that when he’s in girl mode he likes to be called a ‘she’, and when in boy mode a ‘he’. I’m referring to him throughout with male pronouns because he’s definitely in boy mode here.
The story starts on the eve of the war with Izzard’s character, Miller, being dropped off at the college by a bus driven by Jim Broadbent, who farewells Miller with the hope that he lasts longer at the school than the teacher before him. In a pre-title sequence we see this predecessor hunting furiously for some secret inside the college and then fleeing in panic. We soon learn he’s a British spy who manages to phone Whitehall to tell them his cover has been blown before he disappears.
Miller, also a British spy, has been sent under cover to the school to get to the bottom of this.
So far so good. At this stage I was thinking: bewdy, this kind of thing is right up my alley. But by the end I was completely deflated and almost bored. It’s hard to put into words exactly what’s wrong with it. It’s not the period authenticity and it’s certainly not the acting, not with those doyens of British stage and screen Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent, who perform creditably but whose talents are wasted here.
The problem is essentially with the screenplay, co-written by Izzard with one of the other actors, Celyn Jones and the director Andy Goddard, best-known for directing episodes of Downton Abbey and Doctor Who.
There’s one big plot problem that I can’t explain without doing a spoiler, but it has to do with the fact that war hasn’t been declared yet. It undermines the rationale for the final climactic scenes, and you are left asking why all the skulduggery?
There were many such questions: why is Miller the only teacher at the school? Why does Jim Broadbent trust him at first sight? Why doesn’t Miller talk to those nice policemen instead of running away from them, they being on the same side after all? (Post-movie googling revealed that Eddie Izzard has taken up running big time. Maybe he wanted to show off.)
There are red herrings. Izzard warms to a dark-haired girl called Rachel who’s a bit of an outsider among these Aryan blondes. I was sure she’d turn out to be Jewish (but how did she get there?) or otherwise play some crucial role in the resolution, but no…
The dramatic pace is all wrong, the emotional tone is all wrong. Miss Docholl’s conversion from enthusiastic sieg heiler to British patriot is unconvincing. There’s an attempt to get a Dead Poet’s Society type bond happening between Miller and the girls when he teaches them to sing It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, but it too is unconvincing. And eye-rollingly cheesy.
Sorry, Eddie. Stick to comedy. And running. You’re looking good for your age.