Often held up as the worst Prime Minister in modern British history, Neville Chamberlain gets a sympathetic, if hardly vindicating hearing in a satisfying brisk thriller lit up by a terrific Jeremy Irons portrayal.
Chamberlain’s 1938 deal with Hitler in Munich (and his consequent, infamous ‘peace in our time’ address back on home soil) are the backdrop to the Robert Harris novel on which this film is faithfully based. Hitler’s useful dupe is how history remembers him, as he strove to persuade the Fuhrer, already hell-bent on war, to smoke the pipe of peace.
All that diplomatic manoeuvring is nicely recreated by director Christian Schwochow in smoky chambers, luxury hotel suites and conspiratorial gatherings as Chamberlain clings to his faint hopes of avoiding conflict. Meanwhile, Foreign Office aide Hugh Legat (1917’s George MacKay) conducts a secret rendezvous with his well-connected German friend Paul von Hartman (Jannis Niewöhner) to find out what Hitler’s really up to.
But for all the shady-looking characters clad in Gestapo casual (Inglourious Basterds’ August Diehl is especially menacing as a suspicious SS man), the stakes feel oddly low for a historical moment so seismic. It’s not like World War II was averted, which limits the potential plot twists. The only unknown in this mostly-true story is the fate of its disillusioned German translator.
It’s a problem the book addresses by burying itself in the tiny details of Hugh and Paul’s perspectives of the event. The way Nazism has corrupted the German psyche is charted in micro details that work better in prose. Instead, Munich: The Edge of War tries to create static by uniting the two men in a series of snatched exchanges in dark alleys and beer halls.
It’s not like World War II was averted, which limits the potential plot twists
Yet the real dramatic thrill here emanates from the fustily patrician but principled prime minister at the story’s heart: Irons brings so much nuance and life to the tormented Chamberlain that you almost wish the film had jettisoned its underpowered spy thriller dimension altogether and just spent the time with him as he frets and thrills to the tides of fortune well outside his control. There’s something deeply moving, almost tragic, about a good man being slowly enveloped by the dark times around him. Munich captures it nicely.
In UK cinemas Jan 7 and on Netflix January 21