Reel Dad: 'Six Minutes to Midnight' is a would-be thriller

"Six Minutes to Midnight" runs 1 hour, 39 minutes, and is rated R for "some violence." The film opens March 26.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” runs 1 hour, 39 minutes, and is rated R for “some violence.” The film opens March 26.

IMDb / Contributed photo

A movie thriller needs a few essential ingredients.

First, the story requires some type of challenge that must be successfully resolved within a specific period of time. Second, the narrative benefits when an appealing (if somewhat mysterious) heroic figure arrives to take on that challenge. Third, the possibility that victims may be in peril should give that hero a sense of urgency to resolve the business at hand before the deadline. And, fourth, surprise events may threaten the hero to get everything done within the time frame.

The well-intentioned “Six Minutes to Midnight” almost becomes an entertaining thriller but misses some key elements. Its story immediately introduces the challenge, with a sudden disappearance of a teacher at an exclusive boarding school on the British coast in the late 1930s just before the outbreak of World War II. But this school is unusual, for the place, and for the moment. Rather than filling classrooms with students from England, the lessons and extracurricular activities are tailored for girls from Germany as part of that nation’s long-term plans for after the war. When a new teacher surprisingly arrives, and begins to act in what some consider unusual ways, the head of the school starts to wonder who she can trust.

All of this evolves in a precise manner we associate with British films, with a crisp approach to storytelling that gets right to the point. As efficient as this may be, however, this time we need more.

We never get to know what’s behind the new teacher’s intentions, challenging us to feel concern when troubles begin. While this could add to the tension, it also makes the proceedings confusing. At the same time the mixed signals from the head of the school shares make everyone wonder which side she may support. And, clouding all these incidents, is the threat of imminent war that could impact the school, its staff and students.

As clear as this narrative may sound, the film manages to make it all more complicated than necessary. While movie thrillers often demand that we pay close attention to plot twists, this movie forces us to navigate significant gaps in the narrative as characters appear and disappear (and change alliances) without full explanation. We never thoroughly know who is thinking what as people come and go, leaving holes in the plot that are challenging to fill.

Of course, any chance to see Judi Dench on screen is welcome, even if her role as the head of the school feels truncated. The actress doesn’t get enough opportunity to develop the layers of concern her character feels for her students which adds more questions to a plot already filled with incomplete plot threads. As the new teacher caught in the middle of the intrigue, Eddie Izzard demonstrates feeling and fear, but the character remains too distant for us to fully absorb.

Summary: Six Minutes to Midnight

Content: Medium. Because this well-intended thriller never fully develops its characters, we're never quite who is on which side.

Entertainment: Medium. The gaps in the narrative dilute the tension this thriller tries to create.

Message: Medium. Thrillers rarely convey strong messages, and this one certainly doesn't.

Relevance: Medium. While rated PG-13, it's difficult to imagine a family enjoying this story together, it's too confusing.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Low. In our family, if we can't find a movie we feel certain we will enjoy, we play a board game. Consider a board game.

Yes, a movie thriller needs a few staples to fully cook in the cinema kitchen. Consider “Six Minutes to Midnight” a half-baked thriller.

“Six Minutes to Midnight” runs 1 hour, 39 minutes, and is rated R for “some violence.” The film opens March 26.