Synopsis – A British diplomat travels to Munich in the run-up to World War II, where a former classmate of his from Oxford is also en route, but is working for the German government.
My Take – Though 77 years have passed since WWII officially ended, filmmakers around the world continue to unveil an unending plethora of historical biopics and war films all in order to prove that simply because you know the outcome of something, doesn’t mean you can’t make a fascinating cinematic re-telling out of it.
Joining that long list is this adaption of 2017 international best-selling novel by Robert Harris, which has been adapted for the screen by writer Ben Powers, and is directed by Christian Schwochow, and recounts the doomed efforts that were taken to prevent global disaster in the form of a fascist thug known as Adolf Hitler, by focusing on the people who recognized early the reign of terror brewing.
Since the story takes place prior to the wide-scale conflict of World War II, it doesn’t divulge in staging grand set pieces, but instead, the film is very performance and dialogue driven, banking on the strength of the cast to leave an impact. Resulting in a well-made, elegant, often-engrossing historical thriller that is able to stage necessary tension despite its real-life story and result being so well-known.
Sure, due to its fictional approach, history buffs may cringe a few times, but for an entertaining political thriller, the film delivers well enough to keep anyone interested.
Beginning in 1932, the story follows Hugh Legat (George MacKay), an English man, and Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner), a German, who along with Lenya (Liv Lisa Fries), a Jewish German, became best friends at their time in Oxford, until eventually falling out over Paul’s infatuation with the then-rising Nazi Party and their promises of Germany’s future glory.
But six years later, the two find themselves embroiled in one of the most crucial moments in 20th Century history. As Hugh, who now works as the secretary of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Jeremy Irons) and joined him in Munich in a desperate bid to broker peace with German leader Adolf Hitler, has been secretly tasked to meet up with Paul, a German diplomat who has been secretly operating against the Führer, to take possession of a document signaling Hitler’s true intent: a war of conquest across Europe. Amid frantic negotiations at the Munich Conference, Hugh and Paul conspire to prevent a terrifying conflict at all costs.
While the Munich Conference was a real-life event, Hugh and Paul, the film’s two leads, are fictitious characters, giving the film a boost with regards to dramatic stakes, providing the audience a through-line to get invested in. Using a pivotal moment of the 20th century, the screenplay that focuses on the key players and taut direction from Christian Schwochow skirt the obvious ending by mining tension out of what mild hope you have for Legat and von Hartmann.
Knowing that Hitler has no intention of halting his plans for German dominance, the two men bring individual levels of passion and terror to try and stop what they feel is a pointless move from Chamberlain, and try to get him information about the former’s real plans, turning the film into a gripping against time thriller.
The most compelling aspect about the film is in its best moments, not only does it make you see things from Chamberlain’s misguided perspective, a man desperate to avoid the worst case scenario, and a leader who’s committed to a fault to the traditions and decorum of international relations being exercised to prevent a disaster that would surely be more catastrophic than even The Great War.
And yet, the tension that arises in the film is not only knowing the bitter end of failure that awaits Chamberlain’s efforts, but also seeing the faith some leaders put in the institutions to even when dealing with a madman like Adolf Hitler.
While the film is exciting throughout it ends up finding a weak link in the form of Hugh’s struggles at home with his wife Pamela (Jessica Brown Findlay), who doesn’t understand why her husband can’t explain to her what’s happening at work.
Performance wise, George McKay, continuing to become one of the more reliable leading men by weaves complexity into the least interesting of the characters of the film. McKay is able to work in the moral dilemma that comes from having to get honest with a man he admires, while also trying to trust that Chamberlain knows what he’s doing. In comparison, Jannis Niewöhner gets the most room to bring an emboldened, passionate stance to the film, and walks away the film’s brightest star. Veteran
Jeremy Irons effortlessly puts in yet another excellent performance. With his captivating screen presence, here, Irons inhabits the Chamberlain’s weakness, but also cultivates a seeming awareness of his doomed folly. He knows his efforts will fail but he will pursue the charade in any event in the hopes of peace. German actor Ulrich Matthes brings in a fearful Hitler performance.
In supporting roles, Liv Lisa Fries, Sandra Hüller, August Diehl, Jessica Brown Findlay, Anjli Mohindra, Alex Jennings and Mark Lewis Jones bring in interesting turns. On the whole, ‘Munich: The Edge of War’ is a riveting period spy thriller that is handsomely crafted and excellently performed.
Directed – Christian Schwochow
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 123 minutes