George MacKay (pictured) once again demonstrates he has the face of a wartime hero in this new adaptation of the bestselling book by Robert Harris, screened initially at the BFI London Film Festival last year and now on general release.
MacKay’s previous roles include the eponymous Tommo in Private Peaceful and as Lance Corporal Will Schofield in 1917. In Munich – The Edge of War, he is not a soldier, but a young civil servant working in late 1930s Downing Street. His character’s name is Hugh Legat, appropriate in a way because he is often running around Whitehall for his boss, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (played by Jeremy Irons).
The make-up job on Irons is superb, and even if he does not always sound like Chamberlain, the Prime Minister’s most infamous moment – the ‘piece of paper’ at London Airport – is brilliantly recreated.
The film makes clear that Hitler (played by Martin Wuttke) has no intention of honouring that notorious document. But its depiction of Chamberlain is more ambivalent, with Irons playing him as half fool, half cynic, longing to be garlanded as the ultimate peacemaker while ultimately knowing that all he can hope to do at the impeding Munich conference is buy Britain time to rearm.
Legat tags along to the conference, having learned to speak German fluently during a gap year in Berlin just before Hitler came to power. During his time abroad, he befriended a young man of similar age called Hartmann (played by Jannis Niewöhner). In the years since, Hartmann has also made it to the top of his country’s government (what great job prospects the right university can get you), finding work translating the foreign press for the Führer’s eyes.
Once a fanatical Nazi, Hartmann has by 1938 decided that Hitler must be stopped, with lethal force if necessary. Involved in an internal conspiracy to bring the Führer down, he realises he can use the conference to rekindle his relationship with Legat, then use Legat to communicate secret information to Chamberlain in an attempt to avoid war.
For a thriller, the film is quite dialogue-heavy, and only really gets going once they actually get to Munich, which must be almost an hour in. Even then, the tension can only be raised so much, for the majority of any audience watching will already know the outcome of the conference and therefore the outcome of the film. But this is more a shortcoming of the Harris novel, which the film sticks to faithfully.
The film itself is extremely well made, with two excellent central performances by MacKay and Niewöhner as believable long-lost friends risking their careers, and even their lives, for a greater cause.
The story may be a little ridiculous at times, but then so was the real situation: moustachioed diplomats running around with bits of paper in the hope of avoiding a war, when by that time it was all far, far too late.
Review: Calum Henderson
The film Munich – The Edge of War is in select cinemas from 7 January and on Netflix from 21 January.